Afghanistan and Belarus in spotlight with Czech Ambassador to EU’s Political and Security Committee
With the fallout of the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Belarusian regime helping migrants illegally cross the border into EU member states, security questions are currently at the forefront of foreign affairs in the European Union. To find out what is being done in the EU to tackle these challenges – and to learn more about the Czech Republic’s position on these topics – I spoke to Ambassador Jitka Látal Znamenáčková, who is the Deputy Head of the Czech Permanent Representation to the EU as well as the country’s Permanent Representative in the EU’s Political and Security Committee of the (PSC).
The world is still in shock following the rapid advance of the Taliban through Afghanistan and into Kabul. As the Czech Representative in the EU’s PSC, what has your work been composed of these past two weeks?
“These past two weeks have been quite tough and very busy. Not exactly directly for me, but for my colleagues. For me it meant primarily being in touch with my colleagues who are currently on holiday across different parts of the world, but at least we managed to see each other via video call two weeks ago.
“I think our action was really fast and came as an immediate response to the evacuation crisis.”
“We had a PSC meeting via video and then prepared a Foreign Affairs Council meeting of our ministers to discuss the potential development of EU policies in Afghanistan. Primarily, however, there was focus on evacuating our staff and Afghanis who cooperated with our countries.”
Regarding the question of evacuation, the Czech Republic organised three evacuation flights two weeks ago week and managed to evacuate close to 200 people. Some NATO allies evacuated considerably more – the United States tens of thousands, Britain thousands. However, the Czech Republic is of course a much smaller country. Do you think enough has been done in this respect, or is the Czech Republic working with its allies to evacuate more people there?
“I think our action was really fast and came as an immediate response to the evacuation crisis. We have to take into consideration that we are a medium-sized country with limited means. These were used really effectively as far as the evacuation is concerned. It was really quick and very well managed by our foreign and defence ministers and the army.
“As Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhánek said – he had many sleepless nights during this period, so you can imagine that it was quite intense. Overall, I think we did really well.”
Despite this, there are still some people there. Last week, I spoke to an Afghan girl with permanent residency in Czechia. Her father also works in Prague. However, she is still stuck in Kabul. She said that she is very scared and that the problem is not so much getting an airplane out of the country, but, rather, reaching the airport. Do you discuss how to get people to the airport in your discussions in the PSC, or perhaps on the NATO level?
“Of course there is a coordination mechanism which works on several levels. One of them is on the consular level, which relates to exactly the things you were talking about. The other is the political level and there are also many others.
“During the past two weeks, we have been exchanging information regarding how many people we evacuate, or how many flights we are ready to send to Kabul. Your question is mainly for our leadership and whether they decide to send any more aircraft. However, as far as I know, they have said that our evacuation, for the time being, is finished.”
Ok, so what would you tell her in this situation? I told her I will be interviewing a Foreign Ministry representative soon and asked her if she had any question for you. She asked if something will be organised to get them to the airport [safely]. I understand this is not exactly within your portfolio, but I imagine other EU member states may have people in a similar situation in Afghanistan.
“All EU member states have their own intelligence agencies and they can really screen the people that are coming in from top to bottom.”
“She should certainly be in touch with our Ministry of Foreign Affairs…”
She is. She says they are telling her to get to the airport, but she can’t get there yet.
“There will certainly be some coordination attempts also around the airport organised by some EU member states. Therefore, in this case, I am pretty sure that our ministry is in touch with other ministries in other EU member states and they are, let’s say, discussing how to proceed with the evacuation further.
“However, I think that the basic thing is to be in touch with our Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
Ok. Moving on, there is obviously another perspective to what is happening. If we are talking specifically about Afghan nationals, how do we know exactly who all of them are? How do you discuss on the EU level the process of vetting these people and minimising the chance that terrorists may be among them?
“This is quite a big question and I think we have the tools and means in our hands to proceed in a good way.
“All EU member states have their own intelligence agencies and they can really screen the people that are coming in from top to bottom. So, in this regard, I would not be worried, because the screening of people is being done in a very effective manner.”
What happens to those people who do not pass the vetting process? Do they get flown back to Kabul, or are they screened before they actually board the aircraft in the first place?
“Yes, before they get into the airplane.
“Of course, right now the evacuation is focused on people who work with EU member states in some manner or members of the state’s delegation. So, supposedly, they are already screened, because they already work for a member state.”
One of the reasons I asked that question is because US President Joe Biden assured his public in a press conference on August 22 that the thousands of Afghans who are being evacuated by the United States are being checked and vetted on overseas US bases. One of them is of course Rammstein air base in Germany – that means inside the EU. I was therefore wondering, since he says that they’re vetting them in overseas bases – that means not just before they get onto the airplane but also at the overseas bases – what will happen to these people? They might be at a US overseas base, but it is located inside the EU. I imagine they cannot be kept there forever. Do you discuss this potential issue?
“You cannot prevent the regime from instrumentalising migration - which is happening.”
“Thus far this protocol matter has not been discussed on my level. However, there are of course some re-admission means that the EU has in place, so I suppose we are going that way.”
Sine you are the official Czech representative, I was hoping to ask you for some official Czech stance on what has happened in Afghanistan right now with that withdrawal. It has come under attack from several politicians. Czech President Miloš Zeman, for example, said that ‘NATO is a service organisation of the USA’ and that its primary focus should be on combating terrorism. So, what is the official Czech stance on what has happened in Afghanistan and how will you be talking to the US in this regard?
“I think that, for the time being, we are still in the period of checks and balances. The priority really was to get people out.
“Now, not just on our national level, but also on the EU level, there will be, let’s say, lessons learned and exercises that we will be undertaking in a few months’ time. This will start with the discussions of our ministers at the Gymnich meeting this week (the Gymnich meeting is an informal meeting of the foreign ministers of EU member states).
“I know that the EU’s External Action Service has already prepared some lessons learned exercises. I would therefore concentrate more on the EU level [in this regard].”
When you say: ‘We need to concentrate on the EU level,’ one could retort that, at least several leading members of the EU stress the importance of the Transatlantic Alliance. I know that not all EU member states are also in NATO, but this alliance with the US is very important for the European Union, so you see why I am asking that question. From the EU’s security and policy perspective it is surely important how exactly the union will think about this [Afghanistan situation] in relation to the US. What will the EU be telling the US?
“I think, and this is particularly the Czech perspective, that the transatlantic link is really vital for us. Of course, there are some critics among EU representatives to NATO. I would say that it was a process and there were also some developments that one could not predict, so I would really wait for the analysis and check the balance of NATO and EU presence in Afghanistan.”
Last question on this topic: The EU is often criticised for saying that it will discuss things, but then when it comes to an actual response it is difficult to identify what it is exactly, or it is often deemed not sufficient by some people. You said that there is a meeting this week. How soon do you think that the EU will come out with a response on this, or with some sort of idea on how it intends to approach situations such as the Afghanistan withdrawal in the future? How will it ensure that things like this do not happen again?
“Next week there will be an informal meeting of our foreign ministers and I am sure that Afghanistan will be on the table. This [last] week in Brussels the permanent representatives will meet on Thursday and discuss the matter as well. I think that for the next period the work towards the theme of Afghanistan will be quite intense.
“However, to answer your question, I think that EU processes are not quick sometimes. But, at the same time, there are 27 of us and we have to discuss our common approach. We have some tools in our hands for this. One is for example, humanitarian assistance which is quite significant. There is also some extra money added in for Afghanistan. And, of course, one big task will be to discuss the development assistance for Afghanistan which will probably have to stay conditional for adherence to human rights and international law.
“Of course, the third trick, I would say, will be to think of the EU’s political approach towards Afghanistan. That is open to our ministers to discuss.”
If we move on to Belarus, that country’s regime stands accused of letting migrants cross illegally into the EU. Some have, for example, passed into Poland through the forests. What is the EU doing to face this challenge?
“In terms of the migrant situation?”
“Well, I think that in this case we should divide this answer into the immediate response which was done on the national level from some member states. Again, the Czech Republic was one of the first member states to offer support to Lithuania and Poland now as well. This includes material and financial assistance.”
Ok, but how do you prevent Belarus from undertaking such actions?
“This is one of the one million dollar questions. You cannot prevent the regime from instrumentalising migration - which is happening. Our means, on the EU level, are currently focused on watching the borders of our member states.
“If your question is directed to what can be done with Belarus in that sense, the regime is not willing to talk to the EU for the time being. The EU reaction on what has been done by the Belarusian regime over the past months has been very clear, united and quite quick.”
This interview took place on Monday, August 23. The time references in the interview have been amended to fit the day of release.