Czech cabinet and president in accord over foreign policy priorities

Petr Nečas, Miloš Zeman, photo: CTK

President Miloš Zeman made his first appearance at a meeting of the centre-right cabinet on Wednesday. The debate, which was seen as a litmus test of future cooperation between the left-oriented president and the right-oriented government, went off surprisingly well.

Petr Nečas,  Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
Tensions were expected to run high at the first working meeting between the government and the country’s newly-inaugurated president. The head of state, a former Social Democrat prime minister, makes no secret of the fact that he would like to see a left-wing cabinet in office, does not consider the junior coalition party a legitimate member of the government and has at one time or another labeled the vast majority of ministers unprofessional. However, contrary to expectations, the session, focusing largely on foreign policy priorities, went off without a hitch. At a press briefing following the meeting Prime Minister Petr Nečas welcomed the fact that the two sides had found common ground.

“I consider it very valuable that we have had this meeting and confirmed our commitment to the country’s foreign policy priorities namely an active role for the Czech Republic in the EU and NATO, good relations with our neighbours and an accent on close transatlantic ties. We also have a common take on the need to actively support the fight against international terrorism.”

While the president and government may have differences of opinion on a variety of issues molding the country’s foreign policy is likely to be much easier than in the past decade when then-president Vaclav Klaus followed his own foreign policy line on visits abroad, leaving EU officials uncertain as to what they could expect of the Czech Republic. President Zeman made it clear that he would lose no time in correcting this discrepancy. He informed the cabinet that he had invited EC President Jose Manuel Barroso to Prague at the beginning of April on which occasion the two officials would symbolically hoist the EU flag at Prague Castle together and he would sign the European Stability Mechanism concluding the ratification process blocked by his predecessor.

Jose Manuel Barroso,  photo: European Commission
“On the occasion of the upcoming visit by the EC president I will be signing the European Stability Mechanism and I expect it will be counter-signed by the prime minister who is also due to hold talks with Mr. Barroso.”

The other foreign policy priorities which President Zeman voiced are supporting the fight against international terrorism which he considers of the utmost importance and a greater emphasis on finding new markets for Czech exporters. Mr. Zeman said he considered it his duty to take Czech entrepreneurs along on all his foreign visits and even spoke of the need to carefully handpick ambassadors with a strong business background rather than simply career diplomats. If Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg had a different view on the latter he did not voice his reservations publicly, clearly satisfied with the promise of consultations between the cabinet and Prague Castle ahead of foreign visits. On the other hand, Trade and Industry Martin Kuba voiced appreciation of the president’s interest in boosting Czech exports.

If there was a sour note in Wednesday’s closed cabinet session it did not filter through to the media and the president and prime minister even engaged in some good-humored banter at their joint press briefing. The president who is a heavy smoker complained that he had not been allowed to light up during the cabinet session and the prime minister countered that at the Office of the Government the no-smoking rule applies to everyone without exception.