Quo vadis, EU? Czech politicians debate benefits, responsibilities, direction of Union after 15 years as members

Tomáš Petříček, Andrej Babiš, Věra Jourová, photo: ČTK/Roman Vondrouš

Czechs are marking 15 years as EU members this month. With elections to the European Parliament only days away, the nation’s prime minister, foreign minister, and one Commissioner in Brussels are voicing differing views on the benefits and responsibilities of EU membership and the challenges ahead.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: ČTK/Roman Vondrouš
Prime Minister Andrej Babiš (ANO), founder of a business empire that made him a billionaire, says that as an entrepreneur, he takes a rather pragmatic view of things and focus on the facts. The fact is EU membership has been a boon for the Czech Republic, above all in economic terms, he told a conference at the foreign ministry, mainly thanks to the internal market removing major barriers to trade and investment.

“It’s good that membership gives us access to the EU internal market, which I consider one of Europe’s most successful policies. I’ll be even happier when the last obstacles to the free movement of services are removed. This should be our priority for the next EU Commission.”

In a matter of weeks, the results of the European Parliament elections will be known and a new EU Commission will be formed. Mr Babiš said its priority should be to allow Member States greater autonomy, in particular on how EU cohesion and structural funds are spent.

“We want countries to distribute resources according to their own priorities, without unnecessary administrative and other controls. I will fight for this! I don’t want this system where the EU Commission proposes a budget and Member States don’t even know why.”

Mr Babiš said the Czech Republic is the “seventh safest country in the world” and for it to remain so, illegal migration must at tackled at the European level, and the external borders of the Schengen zone reinforced.

“I don’t think these two demands of ours, namely greater economic prosperity and security, necessarily require more of the Union. They do require a more effective Union. Its current form is unsustainable. We’re part of the Union and can change it. We must speak loudly when something bothers us and the Union exceeds its mandate.”

Whereas the Czech prime minister spoke of the EU need to change to better reflect citizens’ demands, Minister of Foreign Affairs Tomáš Petříček (Social Democrats) called on politicians to accept responsibility for decisions taken – collectively – in Brussels.

Tomáš Petříček,  Andrej Babiš,  Věra Jourová,  photo: ČTK/Roman Vondrouš
“In the eyes of the Czech public, there remains a mentality of ‘Brussels’ and ‘us’. Often, we lack the courage to acknowledge we’re involved in the decision-making and accepted the results… Once and for all, we need to stop talk of ‘dictates’ from Brussels.”

Mr Petříček also told the international conference at Černín Palace that politicians need to better articulate the benefits of EU membership beyond “numbers on a chalkboard” – i.e. in strictly monetary terms.

“EU membership is clearly advantageous for us. Yet, it shouldn’t be based solely on transactional logic. … Its value cannot be expressed only in numbers on a chalkboard – how much in funds we receive or what a 1-minute phone call costs in 2019. For me, it is a civilizational and cultural choice.”

For her part, Věra Jourová, the EU Commissioner for Justice, said decisions taken in Brussels should be viewed against the backdrop of 70 years of peace in Europe. Conflict is inevitable with so many national, business and other interests to take in account, she said, adding that compromise is not a “dirty word”.

“We criticise the decision-making process because, yes, it’s bureaucratic, procedural, and long-winded. But the rules do not result in ‘winners’ on one side and ‘losers’ on the other.”

She went on to challenge Mr Babiš’s characterisation of problems regarding the administration of EU funds, arguing it was above all the Czech authorities who need to make the system more transparent and easier to navigate.