Czech foreign minister seeks investment drive to bridge EU divide

Lubomír Zaorálek, photo: Filip Jandourek

Failure to bridge the still massive economic gaps between “Western” and “Eastern” states are one of the factors in often increasing and bitter rifts between EU countries, according to the Czech foreign minister. And Minister Lubomír Zaorálek has called for new and targeted EU investment to try and close the gaps.

Lubomír Zaorálek,  photo: Filip Jandourek
Rifts between so-called “old” and “new” EU member states surfaced and were given their most clear cut expression even before most of the newcomers, including the Czech Republic, joined the EU in 2004. Former French president, Jacques Chirac, lashed out at the newcomers for siding with the US over Iraq.

And the tensions have clearly not disappeared. This week they flared up when Luxembourg’s foreign minister called for Hungary to be booted out of the European Union over its policy towards immigrants.

In a wide-ranging interview for Czech Television on Thursday, coinciding with the start of the EU informal summit in Bratislava on Friday, Czech foreign minister Lubomír Zaorálek said he believes many of the ongoing tensions between EU countries stem from their continued wide economic divergence. He pointed out that one of the main reasons for the British Brexit vote was the influx of around one million Poles seeking a better life.

“I think that this lack of so-called convergence, as it’s described, or proximity, and difference in social and economic development in these countries is really serious and it’s in our interest to solve it.”

Photo: CTK
Zaorálek said that specific investments, such as into digitalization or into major economic projects, should be launched to close the East-West divide. That’s a point which Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka was set to push at the Bratislava informal summit, largely charged with charting the way forward for a still quarrelsome EU after Brexit.

The investment call comes hard on the heels of EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s demand in his state of the union speech on Wednesday for the size of his existing investment plan to double to 630 billion euros and continue past its original deadline and onto 2022.

And the Czech foreign minister had a mixed message in the wake of that speech for the former Luxembourg prime minister and long time coordinator of the mostly “Western” group of euro using member states. He criticized the under fire Commission president for not being more pro-active in seeking compromises and heading off rifts between member states in the past.

“To me some of these things sounded a bit false because its appears to me that he is partly responsible for the state of affairs and should not just describe them. I would on the other hand praise the fact that there were some passages that were very open with regards to positions which we have taken in the past and for which we were snubbed. So I see some change there.”

Photo: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
One key area where the foreign minister sees a change is on the divisive issue of EU immigrant quotas. Zaorálek says the Commission idea of redistributing 160,000 immigrants around Europe has clearly failed with only 5,000 reallocated so far. And he says that has now made Brussels more willing to accept what countries are willing to do on a voluntary basis.