Balkans among Czech EU presidency foreign policy priorities

Photo: European Cimmission

The Czech Republic has outlined several foreign policy priorities for its EU presidency in 2009. Among those highlighted are the Union’s relations with the Balkan states. As Czechs see it, the EUs visa policy for the Balkans and other Eastern European countries should be softened, and if the Czech government's ambitious plan succeeds, the Czech EU presidency should also see Croatia a new member state of the European Union.

Photo: European Cimmission
‘Europe without Barriers’ will be the motto of the Czech presidency of the European Union which the country is due to take up in January 2009. The Czech agenda during the six-month term will include European energy and agricultural policies but EU foreign relations are also high on the list. Deputy European Affairs Minister Marek Mora says there are three major foreign policy areas the government will focus on.

“The first one is trans-Atlantic cooperation – we would like to strengthen the EU's relations with the United States in particular. The second has to do with the Western Balkans, and the third is Eastern Europe. There we would like to bring more attention to European neighbourhood policy, focussing particularly on the European Unions relations with Ukraine and Russia.”

Croatia applied for EU membership in 2003 but its prospects of joining the Union have long been complicated by the Balkans war. The Czech scenario for Croatia to become the 28th EU member state is very ambitious as the accession talks between the EU and the Balkan country have not yet been completed. Marek Mora explains the reason why Czechs want to see Croatia join the EU during the Czech presidency.

“I think it is almost self-explanatory. Every year, we have about one million Czech tourists holidaying in Croatia. This is one of the practical reasons why we would like to concentrate on Croatia. Another is that we believe that historically and geographically, Croatia should have been included in the first wave of Eastern enlargement in 2004 or that in 2007. It didn’t happen due to specific historical reasons.”

Another issue the Czech government wants to concentrate on is the liberalization of visa programmes for other Eastern European countries. Their citizens now have to pay 60 euro, or over 1,500 crowns, for EU entry visas. The Czech opposition acknowledges and welcomes these efforts but says that some major issues are missing from the government’s EU agenda. Lubomír Zaorálek is an MP for the opposition Social Democrats, and shadow foreign minister.

Lubomír Zaorálek
“Our presidency will have to start with the implementation of the new Reform Treaty. I see no willingness on the part of the government to accept this. To me it seems that this will perhaps be the very first priority. The other issue is the Union’s common foreign and defence policy. And I don’t see the government acknowledging the importance of this either.”

The reason why the implementation of the Reform Treaty is not included on the list of Czech presidency priorities is perhaps self-explanatory, too. Also known as the Lisbon Treaty, it was approved by all EU country leaders in Lisbon in December of last year and it replaces the institution of the EU presidency with an EU president and foreign minister. Martin Shabu is an analyst at the ‘Yes for Europe’ association.

“I would highlight one tricky issue – whether the Czech Republic will hold the EU presidency at all. At the moment, we are in the process of ratifying the Reform Treaty. It could be that if the treaty is accepted in the course of this year, the institution of the EU presidency will be cancelled. It is highly unlikely, but it could happen.”