Czech minister breaks ranks over Brexit talks

Milan Chovanec, photo: CTK

A Czech minister has, to some extent, broken ranks over how the European Union should negotiate with Britain over Brexit. Interior minister Milan Chovanec has suggested that when it comes to the rights of Czechs living in Britain, Prague should go it alone and launch its own talks with London regardless of what the other 26 EU countries are doing.

Milan Chovanec,  photo: CTK
On the continent, the reactions to British prime minister Theresa May’s forthright speech last week calling for a clean break with the European Union had one common factor: the demand from leaders that EU states maintain a common negotiating position with London and not get picked off one by one in separate talks and deals. The chorus on that line blasted out again on Tuesday.

But there have already been some signs of weakness in the united stand with Brexit, for example, stirring up the institutional turf war between the European Commission and European Parliament about their respective roles in the negotiations.

The shared goal in theory is that the remaining 27 member states, including the Czech Republic, give the Commission appointed divorce negotiator, Frenchman Michel Barnier, a mandate to agree the terms of the break within the 18 or so available months after London officially launches the process.

But within days of the chorus calls for unity, Czech Minister of the Interior Milan Chovanec took a different stand speaking on broadcaster Czech Television’s flagship current affairs programme on Sunday. The minister suggested that Czechs living and working in Britain should not be left in limbo over their future status for months to come as the talks continue and that Prague should launch its own initiative here with London.

“Here we should undertake an independent initiative with Great Britain and not wait for what Europe does. We don’t know how long the talks would take or if it we would even see [a deal] achieved.”

The minister said that talks attempting to clarify the fate of the tens of thousands of Czechs living in Britain, the precise figure is unclear, have already begun.

Theresa May,  photo: CTK
“I hope we will negotiate on our own. We do not know if there will be a final European agreement on this and we must defend the interests of Czech citizens. We are of course consulting about these things with the British interior ministry but the main focus will be with the foreign ministry and I believe that consultations are already intensively underway.”

The official response to minister Chovanec’s comments has been muted. The official line is that the Czech government will have to redefine its Brexit stance in response to Theresa May’s speech in the coming weeks. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka is reported to be seeking consultations with the leaders of all parliamentary parties to forge a common Czech line in March.

The fourth meeting of the government’s Brexit sub-committee took place a day after May’s speech last week. Much of the focus there though was on what European institutions now in Britain could be tempted to the Czech Republic with the main current targets being either the European Banking Authority or the European Medicines Agency.