Czech minister for EU affairs: We are ready to be the honest broker in the negotiation process

Mikuláš Bek

The Czech Republic is preparing to take over the rotating presidency of the EU Council from France on July 1st, for its second stint at the helm of the 27-member alliance. Due to the war in Ukraine, and the need to address pressing issues such as energy security, defense capability and the resilience of the EU economy, it will have to hit the ground running. I spoke to the Czech Minister for European Affairs Mikuláš Bek about the challenges of taking over the EU presidency in this difficult time and how it had changed the country’s priorities.

Illustrative photo: Gerd Altmann,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“We practically had to rewrite our draft of EU priorities. Today they all reflect the events in Ukraine and we will focus on the impact of the war on European politics. It is the biggest disruption of European politics in three decades as a result of which we have witnessed huge changes of mind in many countries on defense, on energy and other issues, so that is a new situation for all of us and the Czech priorities have to reflect the new situation in Europe.”

And the priorities are - apart from continued support for Ukraine presumably?

Refugees in Prague | Photo: Vít Šimánek,  ČTK

“Definitely we want to focus on the refugee crisis and the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine, that is our first priority, the second is energy safety, the third defense capacities in Europe, both militarily and in the area of cyber-security, the fourth is the strategic resilience of the European economy and the fifth is resilience of democratic institutions.”

Maintaining EU unity

If the war drags on and Europe continues to feel the economic impacts it may erode the EU’s unity which has so far been quite strong. What can the Czech Republic do to maintain that unity?

Illustrative photo: bandvela,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“Unity in Europe is never a unity of one voice, it is a polyphony of more voices, which are able to keep some sort of harmony, but it is natural that there are different voices in Europe and that is also the case with the war in Ukraine. There are states which in the past had close contacts with Russia politically and have direct experience with authoritarian regimes and then there are countries that are geographically and historically far away from Russia and its influence. It is natural that there are differences among us, but we need to keep that harmony and unity and the will to find a compromise on difficult issues.

“The expectation is that if we want to make progress on issues that should be covered by the Czech Presidency we need to prepare a package that would include various items like candidacy status for Ukraine, the French idea of the European political community, Austria’s idea of flexibility in the enlargement process, and maybe decision processes like majority voting in the European Council or even maybe transnational lists for elections to the European Parliament. We have to find a compromise which is rather broad and gives the member states some of what they would like to see in European politics.

Map of the European Union potential candidate states,  with the date of the latest step in the process  (dark blue - member states) | Source: maix,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 2.5

“We have to be quite modest – because it is not to be expected that one could change EU treaties in the space of six months – but we must show some progress in these areas. And they are connected – the enlargement of the European Union is connected with the decision-making processes in Europe, that is quite clear to many member states.”

Czechia may have to take sanctions further

We have seen six packages of sanctions against Russia approved so far. You may have to take that further. But is not the EU exhausting its leverage in what it can do to stop Russia?

Photo:  Office of Czech Government

“I expect that there will be a seventh package. I do not know if soon, but maybe during the Czech Presidency and it will probably cover more persons, more companies from Russia, and most likely even the gas imports from Russia – not stopping them immediately but setting some term for ending the dependence on Russian gas. It will mean difficult negotiations because these sort of sanctions hit back on the member states in a serious way –but I think we will move forward even if we have difficult negotiations.”

Energy security is a top priority

Obviously, energy security is a big issue –what are your goals there – joint purchases in the future?

Illustrative photo:  Tobias Lindner,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“Yes, the European Commission prepared a proposal that opens the way for joint purchases of gas and allows the member states to use European funding to improve the infrastructure pipelines for gas and oil – that will create the instruments to help fill the storage capacities for gas in Europe for the coming winter. So there is a proposal on the table and the Czech Presidency will be in charge of the negotiations. We will have to chair the debate of the member states on these proposals.”

Will it be enough for countries such as Hungary?

Natural gas transfer station in Hungary | Photo: Globetrotter19,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“I am convinced that even Hungary is dependent on some sort of European solidarity in energy, so I do not expect too many problems from that side. The debate is much more complicated by geography and the different capabilities and possibilities of various countries. Some of them have direct links to North Africa or other sources of energy, some countries have terminals for liquid gas, and some countries are landlocked, like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary and that presents the biggest problem, but I believe there is space for us to reach a compromise.”

Boosting the resilience of the EU economy

You mentioned the need to boost the resilience of the EU economy – how are you aiming to address that and how resilient is the EU economy post-Covid, hit by the sanctions against Russia?

“We would like to open new opportunities for international businesses especially with like-minded countries like Australia, New Zealand or South America. We need to place a greater accent on free trade agreements between Europe and other countries.”

“Yes, the supply chains were hit hard by Covid and now by the sanctions and difficulties on the market with raw materials and so on. The Commission has prepared some initiatives in the area of raw materials, mapping the possibilities and capacities and there will be initiatives aimed at bringing back to Europe some production capacities, for instance the Chips Act will be on the table during the Czech Presidency. So we will need to work on improving the missing spaces in supply chains and we would like to open new opportunities for international businesses especially with like-minded countries like Australia, New Zealand or South America. We need to place a greater accent on free trade agreements between Europe and other countries, that’s one of our priorities.”

Debate on solidarity mechanism for migration

Migration is also an important issue. Poland has taken in over four million Ukrainian refugees, The Czech Republic over 350,000, Estonia has a large number. In the past the Czech Republic has been consistently against EU quotas. What forms should EU solidarity take when it comes to refugees?

Ukrainian Roma refugees | Photo: René Volfík,  Czech Radio

“The new Czech government is also convinced that there should not be a compulsory redistribution of refugees. We believe financial solidarity is better suited to solve the problem because it is difficult to force people to stay somewhere or move to another country. We will see how the secondary movement of Ukrainian refugees will develop –that is hard to predict now. So we believe it is better to have financial resources ready on the European level to solve the problem. Naturally the debate on the migration package will be one of the harder tasks of our presidency. Our French friends concentrated their efforts on the easier part of that debate –on the external dimension, i.e. helping the countries which are a source of migration, we must come to the more difficult part of the debate on a solidarity mechanism –there are different views on that among the member states, but we see that there is a need to make progress even in this area.”

EU expansion and candidacy status for Ukraine

On the topic of EU expansion - it has been several years now since the Czech Republic raised the question of the EU’s expansion to the Western Balkans arguing that it would raise security in Europe. Now we see Ukraine eager to join Western structures. How realistic is EU expansion at this time?

“For us candidacy status for Ukraine is part of the solution to the refugee problem and simultaneously part of the solution to the food safety problem.”

“There are strong advocates of candidacy status for Ukraine –which is the beginning of a long process. We are not in favour of any short cuts. We think it is good to apply all the criteria and standards to the process and it is better for Ukraine to go through the standard route. I think we need to argue and to bring rational arguments to the debate on that issue. For us candidacy status for Ukraine is part of the solution to the refugee problem and simultaneously part of the solution to the food safety problem. With the Western Balkan countries it is definitely a very difficult situation now because we have not seen big progress in that region for a long time. There is a new initiative coming from Austria aiming for some sort of flexibility in the enlargement process. Our friends from Vienna suggest it would be good to allow the candidate countries to participate in some areas of EU policy even before being granted full membership. That would be a good way to make progress in some of these countries and we still hope that Bulgaria might reconsider its opposition to North Macedonia and Albania. There is a political problem which prevents these countries from making progress in the enlargement process, but we still hope that negotiations could help to open the way.”

Increasing the EU’s defense capacity

In the face of this security threat there will probably be general agreement on the need to increase the EUs defense capacity. How do you plan to do that?

So-called EU Strategic Compass | Photo: European Parliamentary Research Service,  Flickr,  CC BY 2.0

The so-called Strategic Compass was approved during the French Presidency – mapping the EU’s strategy in this area. We believe there is a good opportunity for improvement in the area of production of weaponry in Europe, a good opportunity for companies to participate in this activity, there is a proposal aimed at joint purchases of weapons which could be financially effective and we believe there is a chance to make progress in the area of joint military units which could be established by the member states. So that is how we would like to proceed in this area.”

Debate on rule of law

One of the issues that the Czech Republic is certain to face during its presidency is implementation of the rule of law. We have seen the EC criticize Hungary for laws relating to the media and judiciary, it has criticized Poland for its stand to LGBT rights and the rights of women. The Czech Republic has not been very vocal in its criticism in the past, but as a presiding country it will be expected to take the initiative. Is it ready to challenge the Visegrad group states fairly and squarely on this matter?

“The main task of the presidency is to be the honest broker in the negotiation process, so our task will be to moderate the debate on rule of law. We are ready for that.”

“Well, the main task of the presidency is to be the honest broker in the negotiation process, so our main task will be to moderate the debate even on rule of law. We are ready for that, we think it is good to reach some sort of de-escalation especially between Poland and the EU, and there are some positive signs in this direction. It is more difficult with Hungary. The Visegrad Group is a bit of a myth for many of our Western colleagues I think. The model for it was Benelux, but the Visegrad group was never so homogenous. Sometimes Visegrad is more of a grouping of 2 plus 2, sometimes 3 plus 1 and I repeatedly try to explain that it is more of a communication platform than a homogenous group of states with the same values and positions on different issues. The Visegrad group is definitely not dead; let us say we are taking a rest or a pause, but this does not mean that there is not a chance for it to play a more important role in the future. But these days it is quite clear that there is a huge divide stemming from Hungary’s relationship to Russia that prevents closer cooperation among the four states.”

Green Deal

We have been speaking about a great many problems stemming from the war – have they put a break on the Green Deal?

“To me it is clear that the main targets of the Green Deal are here, they are valid, reasonable and needed.”

“No, that is not even possible. The Greed Deal is an agreement – and already a law – on the binding goals for the future. But there is still an ongoing debate on how to reach those goals. There are many differences among the member states because it is one thing to reach an agreement on the main target but it is much more difficult to reach an agreement on the distribution of the burden among the member states. But we can see that there is progress in some areas, there are some more difficult issues like the expansion of the system of permits, ETS system, and we will be definitely be in charge of some of the debates over these proposals. It is not an easy task for the Czech Republic because of our own situation. It is honest to say that we have practically lost a decade in building renewable sources of energy, in the last decade we have not built any nuclear blocks and we have not made any progress in the area of using hydrogen for instance, so for the Czech Republic the next five years will be a difficult time, as they will be for many member states. But to me it is clear that the main targets of the Greed Deal are here, they are valid, reasonable and needed.

There are many events planned for the presidency – are there any you would like to highlight?

Volodymyr Zelenskyy | Photo: Office of the President of Ukraine,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 4.0 DEED

“There will be an informal summit taking place in Prague probably at the beginning of October. We would like to invite President Zelenskyy to it –on the other hand, it is quite clear that if the war is not over he will not leave the country. So we will see how the external dimension of the summit develops. It will most likely be devoted to the topic of energy safety. We will definitely have members of the Ukrainian government present at many ministerial meetings. I myself am going to welcome the Ukrainian vice- prime minister for European Affairs during the informal General Affairs Council in Prague. There will be a meeting of the Czech government with the European Commission on July 1st in Lytomyšl –so there are many important events coming.”

Tomáš Kačo | Photo: Czech Television

Finally, the Czech EU Presidency is due to start with a concert at Prague’s Rudolfinum concert hall and the well-known Czech pianist Tomáš Kačo has composed a special piece for the presidency called Stronger Than Yesterday. Given all these problems that we have been talking about – can we hope that they will make the EU stronger, that they will bond the EU?

“Yes, I believe so. Our motto for the Czech presidency, borrowed from a speech by Vaclav Havel in 1996 in Aachen, is “Europe as a task: Rethink, Rebuild, Repower” and it is meant both literally and metaphorically – giving more power to Europe. So, we will see, but we will do our best!”