Czech government pledges to bring the country back to the European mainstream

Photo: European Commission

In its policy statement approved this week, the new centre-left government promises to bring the Czech Republic back to the EU mainstream, reaffirm its commitment to EU integration and take a more active part in shaping the EU’s future. I spoke to Czech Deputy Foreign Minister Petr Drulák about the Foreign Ministry’s priorities and began by asking him how it would go about erasing the country’s troublemaker image in the European Union.

Petr Drulák,  photo: CTK
“If I were to express it in very simple terms it seems to me that the attitude of the previous government, or rather the previous-but-one government (center-right government of Petr Nečas) towards EU integration was to day “No, but” in other words saying NO to most European initiatives and adding “but there are some points that we like”. The new government would like to do the opposite, to say “Yes, but” i.e. in principle we would like to support the integration process, its further deepening and more cooperation, though of course we will not agree with everything, there will be times when we will say “but, this is something we are not comfortable with” but the main thing is the change of the basic attitude from “No,but” to “Yes, but”.

One of the goals is to make Czech foreign policy more predictable –is that realistic? Can we hope to achieve that?

“We hope to have much better coordination of our foreign policy on the domestic scene. The previous government suffered from a cold war between the foreign minister and the prime minister and from a cold war between the foreign minister and the president. In the current constellation it seems that the prime minister and the foreign minister are actually a good team - they have reached a basic agreement on all important foreign policy issues. As far as the relationship to the president is concerned –it will never be easy, but I think we made a serious effort to establish a working relationship.”

You mentioned the president – President Zeman places great emphasis on economic diplomacy, speaking at Monday’s meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels Foreign Minister Zaorálek stressed human rights in connection with the situation in Ukraine. Are there potential friction areas there – how are you going to balance that and juggle that?

“Well, I would not say that these issues are contradictory because of course human development is driven both by prosperity, which is about economic diplomacy, and also by human rights –so we do not see it as a contradiction. Economic diplomacy is also one of the Foreign Ministry’s stated priorities but we also want to stress the human rights dimension, we think that these two issues are linked and could go hand-in-hand. Of course, sometimes there will be some friction, but this friction does not have to be resolved by cold war relations or shouting matches. It can be resolved by discussion and by agreement and we hope that this will be the way.”

Where do the country’s foreign policy strengths lie –what can we offer the EU?

Photo: European Commission
“Well, I don’t think that the Czech Republic is a special country that is exceptional in the European Union. We are a smaller country, which has its limitations but also its advantages. In terms of limitations you do not have the economic, administrative or military capacity of the bigger countries, on the other hand as a smaller country you do not have a stake in many issues around you like the big powers do –which means that you can often be impartial on international issues and conflicts and you can offer your services to a variety of international actors in a way that the big powers cannot, because the big powers will always be biased and have their own big power interests. So that is a common role for small states and we hope to capitalize on that.”

“Of course, we are also a central European country, which means that we have a unique experience –it is a geo-political experience but it is also a transformation experience and I would say we have a greater understanding for countries in transition, countries in the process of building a market economy, democratic structures and countries which are striving to join the EU. We ourselves joined the EU recently and we can help by sharing our experience. We would probably find other areas (where we could have a strong input), but I think these areas are quite important.”

Is that why the foreign minister feels it is important for the Czech Republic to raise its voice with regard to what is happening in Ukraine?

“Definitely, I think that Ukraine is part of the area with which we feel affiliated. We are not indifferent to what is going on in Ukraine and would like to offer our reflections on and our understanding of the processes there and thereby make an input into EU decision-making.”

Does Višegrad cooperation remain important in pushing through Czech foreign policy goals?

“Višegrad cooperation has many advantages and what is quite unique about Višegrad cooperation is that it creates a network of trust in central Europe - which cannot be taken for granted. It is something that we have achieved through more than 20 years of intensive cooperation and we hope that in future Višegrad cooperation will be even more useful in coordinating our foreign policies and foreign policy goals. But the main achievement so far is this network of trust and of cooperation between the four countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary).

Petr Drulák,  Lubomír Zaorálek,  photo: CTK
In a recent article you say that the Czech Republic appears to have lost its commitment to the EU project, the whole EU concept as such – is that really the case do you think?

“There was an unfortunate tendency in recent years in Czech politics. When we started on the road back to Europe so to speak in 1989-1990 we had a clear goal of achieving membership. And once we achieved that goal, once we had achieved EU membership we were somehow uncertain what to do with it. And we started wondering why we were there in the first place. Maybe this reflection was necessary. From my perspective we have now had ten years of reflecting on what are doing in the EU and it is time to start acting again. Maybe it was a necessary period, personally I think it was time lost, but in any case it gives us good motivation to start doing something.”

When you say “start doing something” and “renew the country’s commitment” what exactly do you have in mind so that it is not just paying lip service to the cause?

“Well, there are some important initiatives which the Czech Republic should join like the fiscal compact, like the banking union, we should prepare for Eurozone membership, so those are the obvious things –catching up with the things that we let pass in the past and then there are issues about the future of the European Union, how to shape the future European order. I think that the foreign minister made it clear that he would like to see a Europe which would be more social than the neo-liberal Europe of today and the Czech Republic will support European integration which goes in this direction.”

So you feel that the Czech Republic does have a vision of a future European Union?

“Yes, we have a vision of a Europe which is more social than it has been so far, but also one which is more active on the international stage, which is better able to coordinate its own foreign policy, which is able to speak eye-to-eye with important global leaders and which is also able to project its military power in places which are important for it – so, yes, that is the vision of Europe that we have.”

In order to turn this around so to speak, you will also need to influence public opinion – there has been growing disillusionment in this country with the EU project, with EU membership – how do you hope to turn that around – will you be active on the home scene as well?

Photo: European Commission
“Indeed, one of the important priorities of the new government is to be more active in dialogue with citizens about the European Union, because in the last years the political elite was either hesitant or critical when they talked about the EU and in this respect it is no wonder that people started being rather skeptical about the whole idea of the European Union. So we should remind people of the benefits we have and also explain what we expect of the future and how the future of the Czech state, of the Czech Republic is linked –essentially linked – with the future of the European Union because without the EU we would live in an environment which would be really dangerous for a country the size of the Czech Republic. So we want to be much more active in our communication strategies, in promoting dialogue, in engaging people with the European Union.”