“All eyes on Ukraine” – Czech EU presidency debate

As the Czech Republic’s six month EU presidency fast approaches, we discussed the country’s list of priorities for the chairmanship of the European Council with Czech Radio’s EU Affairs analyst and former Brussels correspondent Filip Nerad, and Eastern Partnership and Russia expert Pavel Havlíček from the Association for International Affairs.

The Czech Republic has announced its list of priorities for its upcoming presidency of the EU Council which is set to run for six months starting July 1st. They are:

1.  Managing the refugee crisis and Ukraine’s post-war recovery

2.  Energy security

3.  Strengthening Europe’s defence capabilities and cyberspace security

4.  Strategic resilience of the European economy

5.  Resilience of democratic institutions

Petr Fiala | Photo: ČT24

Gentlemen, before we get into the nitty gritty of the specific list of priorities, I want to quickly ask you what was your initial reaction to this list and to Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s statement that this presidency is a test of maturity for the Czech Republic?

FN: “The topics are quite logical. It is a reaction to the war in Ukraine. That war has changed everything in preparation for this EU presidency and it responds to all the needs and challenges that the war brings upon the EU. So I think it makes sense.

“Any other priorities would be dreaming or fiction. Our presidency must concentrate on the impacts of Russia’s aggression on Ukraine.”

Pavel Havlíček | Photo: Archive of Pavel Havlíček

PH: “No surprises either. I certainly agree with Filip. I think that this is a presidency which is responding to the crisis and the war. It’s a presidency for bad times, crisis times, and I think that the priorities are very well chosen for that, namely to respond to the big issue that we are facing, especially when perceiving the crisis from the perspective of Central and Eastern Europe which we will be discussing later.

“Maybe just to add a little bit, I also heard some criticism that some other policy ideas are falling through because these war-driven priorities are given precedence. For example, climate change, or these more value-driven debates on the rule of law. But let’s see how the plan is actually implemented first.”

We should also get straight what it means to be a country that holds the EU presidency, especially for a relatively small country such as the Czech Republic. Mr Nerad could you enlighten us a bit on the effective power that a member state actually holds when it is given this role? Especially, a smaller state like the Czech Republic?

FN: “Well, in the contemporary post-Lisbon Treaty European Union the powers of the country that holds the presidency are limited and the focus is mainly on bureaucratic processes.

Filip Nerad  | Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio

“In pre-Lisbon treaty times, the country that held the presidency was basically the director of the EU for that specific period of time. The prime minister of such a country became the de-facto head of the whole EU bloc.

“Nowadays the EU has permanent representatives, by this I mean Charles Michel, and its permanent representative for foreign policy. So the presiding country runs the negotiations on many levels, but it is mainly focused on the processes that it is trying to push through.

“So it is less about policy and more about bureaucratic procedures. Big politics will be made by Josep Borell and Charles Michell. We will be more focused on these bureaucratic procedures.”

On that note: I often hear that Czech diplomats are very good in Brussels?

FN: “Yes, that’s true. During Czechia’s first presidency in 2009, after the fall of the Czech government it was the country’s diplomats who saved face for the country in Brussels, because they did their job and the politicians didn’t. That’s our anchor.

“We could say that these people will save it anyway and that there will be no second crisis during this presidency, but even if there is, I am sure that the diplomats will do a good job. “

If we move on to the list of priorities itself, perhaps the most prominent in the headlines right now is that of supporting candidacy status for Ukraine. Mr Havlíček, as someone who focuses on the EU’s Eastern Partnership platform, what was your reaction to Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s statement that Ukraine should be granted candidate status after Georgia? And do you see any prospect for a deepening of EU cooperation with other Eastern Partnership countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova) during the Czech presidency?

Goerigian flag | Photo: InstagramFOTOGRAFIN,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

PH: “I think that the Czech presidency will certainly perceive Eastern Europe and the Eastern Partnership as a comprehensive region and as a comprehensive policy. That said, our eyes in Prague are indeed on one ball and that is Ukraine. The other countries, including Georgia and Moldova, are a sort of second or third tier in this respect.

“Here I would say that we saw a rather emotional reaction from the Georgian prime minister, who is clearly seeing that his government is very much undermining domestically European values, European processes and also behaving in all kinds of ways that are not in line with EU thinking both in terms of deepening societal polarisation and authoritarian spirits.

“One man capturing a state is something that is very often attributed to Georgia and he is clearly seeing that EU candidacy status is slipping through his fingers. That’s when these sorts of emotional reactions come into place.”

FN: We should also add that Ukraine is a little angry at Georgia and Moldova that they are also requesting candidacy status, because Ukraine wants to be regarded as a somewhat extraordinary case, while Georgia and Moldova should wait. So there is also a certain factor of jealousies between these countries. It’s not so easy. ”

What about the Western Balkans, a region whose states’ successive Czech governments have lobbied for to join the EU? Charles Michel visited several of these states recently and precisely mentioned their road to becoming members?

PH: “If I may start and Filip will complement me, I think that there have been very interesting developments when it comes to this region, because, just last year, Czech and international stakeholders, together with the Slovenes during their presidency, promised that they would hold a summit here in Prague on the Western Balkans.

Photo: Knuftedufte,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“We didn’t hear that during the government press conference on the Czech Republic’s EU presidency plans. It’s clearly the case that even if, traditionally, the Czech Republic was very much inclined towards supporting these countries in their strive towards joining the European Union all eyes are now very much on one ball – and that is Ukraine.

“The other countries are second and third tier, and there is this kind of competition going on. I would extend that competition to the Western Balkans, because this is essentially a competition for EU attention and resources. From the Czech point of view, Ukraine is central, because of the obvious reason – Russian aggression. It is not Serbia, nor Montenegro, the two more progressive countries in the region, but also neither the other ones.

“In this regard, objective factors also come into play unfortunately. For example, the Bulgarian position on North Macedonia and essentially also on Albania and their blockade, which even Czech politicians find impossible to overcome. Unfortunately, there is this impasse and that is also why the Czechs are more focused on the eastern neighbourhood.”

The Czech presidency has also announced that it intends to focus on flexible transfers of financial sources to help the most affected member states in dealing with the crisis. Now, I suppose that also means the Czech Republic. Do you think less affected member states will be ready to do this, Mr Nerad?

Photo: Christian Dubovan,  Unsplash

FN: “I think they will, in some way or another, because there is always this problem with reallocating people and these kinds of things, but it’s less problematic to relocate money. Therefore I think it is more likely that we will find a solution when it comes to financing rather than in any other problem.

“That said, I am not able to say whether there will be financial transfers from the funds that we already have for migration or if new funds will be found somewhere in the European budget that could be brought to these countries. However, I presume it is very likely that there will be some kind of a solution to this.”

If we move to energy security, the Czech Republic’s second priority, how much can the Czech Republic get out of this unexpected energy crisis in Europe caused by Russia’s aggression in terms of its own energy goals, because that is something that a state such as the Czech Republic may have interest in? We all remember the shock of ČEZ CEO Daniel Beneš in January when the Commission was debating its Taxonomy on energy regulation. He was placated thereafter, but can the sudden openness in the EU to find other than sustainable power also be an opportunity for Czechia. And what sorts of aims would the Czech Republic have in this regard?

FN: “Well, we do need secure resources and that will be one of the main priorities for the Czech presidency, trying to help the EU find them. There is a big package called, Repower EU, which should make the EU independent of Russian fuels and we expect to be the coordinators or dealmakers of this. Whether it’ll be successful I don’t know, but if the result is along the lines of what is predicted now then the EU should become independent of Russian fuels sooner than was previous expected.

Photo: René Volfík,  iROZHLAS.cz

“The plan counts on building new infrastructure, LNG terminals and greater energy efficiency faster. It is also intertwined with the EU’s climate goals that are part of the FitFor55 regulation and so on.

“Therefore, given the situation, the Czech Republic can’t push for its own national interests during its presidency term in the second half of 2022. We can’t fight so much for nuclear energy for example. We should be the dealmakers, but we can influence how the deal will be made. And I think that this is the aim of the government – to try to shift this in a way that will be good for us.”

PH: “If I may add, here, when it comes to refugees and financial flows, the Czech Republic is again very much at the centre of the debate. It was one of the three countries that negotiated an exemption from the sixth package of sanctions on Russia (which contained a complete import ban on all Russian seaborne crude oil and petroleum products – 90 percent of oil imports from Russia to EU). This was, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

“That said, it is not just touching us. In this area we may be playing the role of advocate to finding a solution to this very profound and deep crisis, but also saying ‘look this might also benefit us’ as a collateral effect of this solution. This is the case for both refugees and energy, as well as other issues.”

I was speaking to the Czech Republic’s Minister for European Affairs Mikuláš Bek last Wednesday about the aim to rebuild Ukraine after the war. No one of course knows when this conflict will end, but he said that the Czech Republic at the very least hopes to initiate a European plan on how the reconstruction of the war stricken country would proceed. Mr Havlíček how would you go about implementing this idea?

Photo: Martin Dorazín,  Czech Radio

PH: “There is a path to this. When Prime Minister Petr Fiala was asked about rebuilding Ukraine he said that you need to start by ending the war, so obviously this is a starting point for all related negotiations. We are very much looking beyond the end of the crisis when it comes to this question and towards a Ukrainian victory, but this is of course not a given fact. It is certainly not a guaranteed outcome that this war will end any time soon, even during the Czech presidency, if we look at the current situation on the front in the south and east of Ukraine.

“However, it is very important to have a plan for what comes next. This is both the case for the candidacy status for Ukraine, as a strategic vision for the future, as well as for the rebuilding of the country, because you need to give the people, who are not just fighting for their home every day, but also for European values and the EU as such, a strategic response.

“In this regard, the European Commission has already presented a programme called ‘Rebuild Ukraine’, which counts on sending between 500-600 billion euros to Ukraine within the next year, once the war finally ends.

“Here, we need to do a couple of things. First of all, the Czech Republic has already promised that it will organise a donor conference together with the United States, the so-called ‘Marshall Plan for Ukraine’. This is something that really resonates a lot. Maybe the EU will want some other plan for Ukraine, call it the EU plan for Ukraine or whatever, but in any case this is something that needs to be very well prepared. It also has to be very well coordinated with Ukraine and that is why the plan is to invite both American stakeholders as well as Ukrainians and to agree on a common framework on how to do things in the future.

Photo: Clara Sanchiz,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC 2.0

“So here, the issue is very much still in the making but this process of planning and organising all of the elements of this debate is something that has to start during the Czech presidency.”

FN: “If I may add, all of this support should be connected with reforms. Namely, reforms that will bring Ukrainian institutions more into the European fold, so that, during this reconstruction, the country will also develop in a more European way and therefore be more ready to join or get closer to the European Union. This process should therefore be interlinked and ensure that it is not just money that is being sent to Ukraine, but that the country is also brought closer to the EU.”

“This is actually one of the fundamental arguments for giving Ukraine candidacy status, because we need to be investing in a country that one day will become one of our own. It is therefore important that it at least has similar values to us, very similar fundaments and that it will be ‘Europeanised’. This are the right tracks that we need to be advocating for.”

You know gentlemen, when I was looking at the Czech Republic’s presidency plans for strengthening the resilience of the European economy. I noticed a shift from France’s vision of European Strategic Autonomy to a sort of free world free trade block, where emphasis is placed on expanding trade with democratic states across the world. There is also mention of expanding cooperation between the US and EU in the Trade and Technology Council (TTC). Does this signify a division within the EU between states like France and those in the CEE region like the Czech Republic that may now be even more committed to a transatlantic focus after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the relatively soft response of EU big hitters such as France and Germany?

Photo: ds_30,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

FN: “Well, I would say that is typical for France respective to the Czech Republic. France is a defender of its interests and of European interests driven by France. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic is an advocate of free trade. That is the ideology of how these two countries view trade and economy as such.”

Do you think that this fourth point, strategic resilience of Europe’s economy could actually rise in prominence if the inflation and supply shortage phenomenon continues? We have seen how dependent Europe’s strongest economy, Germany, is on Russia for example in terms of resources. Czech industry is of course dependent on Germany in turn.

PH: “I certainly think so. The debates about supply chains and actually cutting off some of these more problematic actors, such as China, also Russia when you refer to energy resources, this will become much more urgent. It includes a much wider category, not just the production of goods, but also, as you mentioned, inflation and also socioeconomic factors. Here in the Czech Republic we may see an increasingly larger segment of society may fall below the poverty line at some point. This is a gradual process, but we need to be very careful about this.

Photo: Damian Gadal,  Flickr,  CC BY 2.0

“What I think is the way out of this problem for the Czech Republic, a country of limited resources if we are being frank about this, is to get a wider European and Transatlantic response to this issue. Also through investments, because I think that what was at some point an unprecedented move to borrow on the investment and financial markets together for the European Union might either be repeated completely, or those EU grants aimed at providing recovery will be fully exhausted first.

“It’s an issue that we will have to tackle by massive investment. This is my deep conviction and it’s also why I think that the Czech Republic has a role to play here during its own presidency, but also through free trade and a global look at where we can do more and better with other like-minded countries.”

I am going to ask you to take a guess now gentlemen. There is an EU summit planned to take place at Prague Castle sometime in September or October this year, during the Czech presidency. What do you think it’s going to be about?

FN: “It will take place at the beginning of October and it must be about Ukraine. If it is, the Prague presidency will come into the European spotlight. It is the hottest topic in the EU now and it can bring something important.

“If the Czech presidency wants to have any kind of important EU summit on its soil, it must be about Ukraine. Everything else would be discussion for the sake of discussion.”

Would you agree, Mr Havlicek?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy | Photo: Office of the President of Ukraine,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 4.0

PH: “I would mostly agree, but let’s just track back a couple of months to when different versions of this format were being discussed. A summit with the United States and bringing Joe Biden to Europe was one of the options, another was a summit on the Western Balkans which I referred to earlier. Nevertheless, we essentially ended up with what Filip described so very well.

“However, I think that having Zelensky and Joe Biden both with us in Prague would be an absolute victory for the presidency. It would be difficult, also due to the coming election in the United States, but let’s see what the future holds for this.”

I mentioned that the summit will be taking place at Prague Castle, the official residence of President Miloš Zeman whose politics have often differed to those of incumbent governments. Do you think he might have any role to play during this presidency or is he going to stay back?

Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio

FN: “No. I already tried to find out what his role will be and there are no plans. He will greet the guests at Prague Castle as the landlord and that will be enough. There won’t be any role for him during the presidency and, in my mind that is a good solution.”

PH: “I definitely agree with this. Let’s see what the people around Prague Castle have to say about it. However, I would say that for the president it would be a largely ceremonial function as he is officially the head of state, but essentially not an implement of executive power in this position.”

My final question actually relates to the introduction to the Czech government’s EU presidency priorities list.  They say that they take inspiration from former Czech President Václav Havel’s 1996 speech Evropa jako ůkol (Europe as a task). It states that Europe should not strive to get back into the role of a conductor of a “world concert” and force its cultural values on the rest of the world, but rather should take up the role of a continent that inspires others and leads by example. Is Europe in a position to be able to do this, or are all of these sudden crises going to force the EU to become more realistic?

PH: “I think that we still are inspiring in some ways, when we look at these debates that are increasingly resonating around the world. If we look at the climate agenda, Europe is still at the centre of the world, as well as on so many other normative issues.

“The normative power of the EU is still there. When we look at the digital realm, the regulation of social media platforms, it is the European Union that is driving the world, not the other way round.

“Even if we are now so much weakened by what we have to face with Russia’s war on Ukraine and its impact which we were discussing for most of our talk here today. The EU is this normative actor in so many areas and we should not forget about this.”

FN: “I agree with that, but the problem is that not everyone is following us.”

This debate was recorded on Thursday, June 16, 2022.

Photo:  Office of Czech Government