How did the Czechs do at the top of the EU?


This Tuesday is the final day of the Czech Republic’s EU presidency before the country hands over to Sweden on July 1. The six-month presidency has seen the Czechs tackle a global financial crisis, an energy dispute between Russia and Ukraine, a crisis in Gaza, and the toppling of the country’s own government halfway through. So how did they do? That’s what we ask in this week’s Talking Point:

The Czech presidency of the EU showed that a newcomer, that a small country, could contribute to the bloc and leave its mark, says Prime Minister Jan Fischer evaluating the presidency on Monday. But what sort of mark exactly did the Czechs leave? Alexandr Vondra is the former Czech Minister for European Affairs, he was responsible for preparing the presidency and seeing it through until the change of government in May. What does he think the Czech EU presidency will be remembered for?

“I think energy security is an important challenge for all of us in Europe, so we must be better interconnected and invest more into infrastructure. The Eastern Partnership is an important challenge for the European Union to establish relationships with countries like Ukraine and others on the periphery, and in the economic crisis, to respond with the voice of wisdom – so to have the measures, but not to overstretch those measures because they could turn against your original intentions – and I think here the Czech approach was a very rational one. And I think this is more than enough.”

The Czechs set themselves an ambitious set of priorities ahead of their EU presidency, labeling them ‘The Three E’s’. They were: economy, energy, and Europe in the World. With Europe facing both an economic and energy crisis in the first few months of the Czech presidency, these priorities seemed to have been well chosen, but were they, in the end, well fulfilled? Elsa Tulmets is a French political analyst living and working in Prague:

“I think it is always difficult for a presidency to fulfill the priorities which have been set in advance, there are always some events which come up, and it is always very difficult to fulfill all of them. But I think that third E – Europe in the World – has been fulfilled to some extent, not all the elements that were in it, but for the Czechs, I think the EU–USA Summit was quite a success, and also the Eastern Partnership Summit. As far as the Western Balkans were concerned, I think there was more ambition on the Czech side and I think the Czechs did not match what they wanted to achieve at an EU level.

“But as far as the first two E’s are concerned, I think there one can be a bit more critical and perhaps the Czechs had higher ambitions that they couldn’t reach during this presidency.”

Political scientist Jiří Pehe, meanwhile, is more damning in his analysis. Here, in a nutshell, is his take on the presidency:

“Well, I think that the Czech Presidency of the European Union really wasn’t a great success. There were several reasons, and we could of course analyse those reasons, but I think the biggest problem was the [financial] crisis, that a country the size of the Czech Republic couldn’t possibly help solve and couldn’t really direct the rest of Europe efficiently. And then of course the fall of the Czech government in the middle of the Czech presidency, which I think was the last nail in the coffin.”

Perhaps one of the things that the Czech Republic’s EU presidency will be best remembered for is the toppling of Mirek Topolánek’s centre-right cabinet halfway through the country’s stint at the helm. This left Mr Topolánek as a political eunuch with the presidency, but no political backing at home, before being eventually succeeded by a caretaker prime minister, Jan Fischer, whose mandate was limited. Those we stopped on the streets of Prague were fairly bitter about the government’s untimely demise. Here is how some Czechs on the street summed up the presidency:

“Well I think it wasn’t very good, and it seems to me that it confirmed that some of the Eastern European countries are not very reliable on the European level. The problem is that, for Czech politicians, the internal fight for power is more important than international European issues.”

“I think that we were successful. Not with this government thing – we failed there. But with the whole presidency, I thought it was good for us. It was good to take this chance to have it.”

“The Czechs performed as badly as they possibly could when they brought down the government – they really took things to an extreme. They showed once again that Czechs aren’t capable politicians.”

“Well it certainly cannot be called a great success, can it? It was good at the beginning and we all know how it ended. So, it was pretty bad, and it was ended basically by Paroubek and Klaus in their joint venture.”

Former Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek called the Czechs’ EU presidency a ‘wasted opportunity’ in his evaluation last week. For new European Affairs Minister Štefan Fuele, however, the last few weeks of the presidency ahead of a key European summit weren’t so bleak:

“Let me put it diplomatically, that we have not won anything by sending down the previous government and putting a new one in charge during the presidency, that is for sure. I think it is about the credibility of the Czech Republic, but taking into account the commitment of the new government, the commitment of the prime minister to finish the presidency with flying colours, I think we will succeed.”

In its review of the Czech presidency, the Financial Times quoted an unnamed diplomat saying the Czechs’ ‘officials were very good, their politicians were catastrophic’. Both Pehe and Tulmets agree that the interim Czech government, made up of just such officials, did surprisingly well in the last month of the presidency. Here is Elsa Tulmets:

“Well I think what was very important was that the new government was created out of the administrative side, and I think that is how the Czechs could manage to have continuity in their own presidency despite this political crisis. And I think that was a good point, because somehow this administration managed to keep on working on these dossiers and to manage really quite well at the end.

“And that is also what other people have said in the European Union. It is everywhere in the press, for example, that the French president, who was quite critical of the Czech EU presidency reacted quite positively in the end. So he said to the Czechs, or at least Mr Fischer, that he really managed well in the end.”

But, according to political analyst Ivo Šlosarčík, while the Czech Republic’s EU presidency might be remembered for controversial artist David Černý’s stereotype-purveying sculpture Entropa and the fall of the government right now, this is not necessarily how it will be judged in the long term:

“We cannot really know whether the June summit was a success or not, because we don’t know whether this Irish package will really work. We don’t know if the Czech initiative with the Eastern Partnership will be remembered at all, or remembered in a positive way, because we don’t know whether the Eastern Partnership will fly. And we don’t know whether Czech support, and pretty strong support, for the Nabucco project will be remembered, because we don’t know if it will ever be realised. So, we definitely will be remembered for domestic turmoil and the media fuss around the presentation of the Czech presidency. Whether the Czechs’ substantial activities might overshadow the negative experience with the fall of the government, will depend on the success of those particular projects, which the Czech presidency was supporting.”

Before their EU presidency, the Czechs promised to ‘make Europe sweeter’. Whether the aftertaste of the Czechs’ presidency will be sweet or sour will become clearer in the months and years to come.