Czech PM seeks to hold Visegrad line at Brussels summit

Bohuslav Sobotka, photo: CTK

Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka is attending the EU summit in Brussels not just for his country but also as the front man for the regional Visegrad Four grouping. But the Central European group has been showing some strains of late in reading from the same page.

Bohuslav Sobotka, photo: CTK
EU Council president Donald Tusk took an optimistic tone on Thursday night at the European Summit in Brussels after government leaders of the EU 28 had discussed ways of dealing with the immigrant crisis. Tusk said the EU was finally starting to get to grips with the problem.

Czech leader Bohuslav Sobotka went into the two-day summit, due to conclude Friday, very much as a man with a mission to save the free movement Schengen zone. The country, which only has borders with other Schengen member states, is a big gainer from the free movement zone.

And with the Czech Republic heading up the four nation Visegrad Group which also comprises Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland, Sobotka’s words are carrying some extra clout.

Leaders of the Visegrad Four met between themselves and with Tusk as the summit kicked off. But the conclusions of the meeting of regional prime ministers showed them united on the need to shore up the Schengen zone but divided on one of the main proposals on how to do it.

European Union heads of state and government pose during a group photo at an EU summit in Brussels, December 17, 2015, photo: CTK
Poland and Hungary had strong reservations about the European Commission proposal advanced just ahead of the summit that a 1500 strong force of European border and coast guards be created with the possibility of intervening whenever an external Schengen border looked vulnerable against another surge of immigrants.

The Czech Republic spoke out in favour of the move which the others described as a just too big an encroachment on the powers of national governments. In the end a handful of EU countries held out and stalled a decision on the EU border force. But a final decision on the force is still being sought in the coming months with a deadline set for June. And Donald Tusk has warned that if this move is dumped by holdout countries another proposal just as unpalatable or even worse will probably follow.

Sobotka and the Visegrad Four should be on surer ground Friday and they have collectively vowed to take a stand on a Russian-German plan to build new gas pipeline capacity under the Baltic Sea. This would sideline Ukraine, costing it billions of euros in gas transit earnings, and turn Slovakia into a gas transit backwater.

The Visegrad Four are demanding the European Commission take a stand against the so-called Nord Stream II pipeline by saying it conflicts with Europe’s energy security and single market goals. That stand would probably put Brussels on a very problematic conflict course with Berlin.

Photo: Harald Hoyer, CC BY-SA 2.0
And on the pipeline question Prague itself has had to perform some last minute pre-summit acrobatics. A Cabinet refusal to back Slovakia and six other EU countries against the new pipeline at the start of December, partly for fear of offending Germany, was finally reversed into a united stand.

That united Visegrad stand was also on show in the face of British demands for EU reforms ahead of its membership referendum in 2017. The Visegrad message was that some reforms could be looked at but not at the expense of free movement of EU citizens and equal rights to social and welfare payments in host countries.