Ukraine and energy in focus as Czech government unveils five priorities for upcoming EU presidency

„Europe as a Task“

The Czech government has presented its list of priorities that it plans to focus on during the country’s upcoming presidency of the EU Council that will run from July 1 to December 31 of this year. Managing the refugee crisis associated with the war in Ukraine as well as helping rebuild the country will be a top issue, along with ensuring energy security for Europe and strengthening defence capabilities.

Speaking at the unveiling of the government’s priorities on Wednesday, Prime Minister Petr Fiala referred to the upcoming Czech EU presidency as a “test of maturity” for the country as it assumes the mantle of chairing meetings between representatives of the EU’s 27 member states.

“It will not be an easy test. Europe and the world as a whole are going through a period of major change because of Russia’s aggression. This has shaken many of the foundations that we previously held for granted. It certainly revealed the weaknesses of Europe’s security architecture which we will also have to develop, not as bystanders but as active participants.

“Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has also caused the largest internal European refugee wave since the end of the Second World War and it is our duty to manage this crisis honourably.”

Priorities of Czech presidency of the EU Council

  • Managing the refugee crisis and Ukraine’s post-war recovery
  • Energy security
  • Strengthening Europe’s defence capabilities and cyberspace security
  • Strategic resilience of the European economy
  • Resilience of democratic institutions

Managing the consequences of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine certainly lies at the forefront of the Czech presidency plans, with either Ukraine or Russia being mentioned in all of the five priorities that the government has chosen to focus on.

The first is the management of the refugee crisis and planning the rebuilding of Ukraine after the war. This includes mobilising EU funds to support member states that have been hardest affected by the refugee crisis, as well as ensuring that Europe cooperates in successfully integrating the huge numbers of people that have been forced to seek refuge in the EU.

Mikuláš Bek | Photo: Radio Prague International

Specifically, this includes making sure that refugee children have access to education and care, a move which the government hopes will also help Ukrainian women entering Europe’s labour market. While it is impossible to predict when the conflict in Ukraine will end, the government hopes to at least start the debate on how the EU will help the country rebuild its infrastructure and economy.

Energy security, the lack of which has been painfully exposed to Europe in recent months, is another topic that the Czech Republic will seek to place at the forefront of EU Council meetings. The main focus will be on successfully weaning the union off of Russian energy supplies and finding short-term alternatives before the EU’s plan to decarbonise can be fully put into practice.

Strengthening Europe’s defence capacities is the third priority on Czechia’s to-do list. NATO is identified as a key partner in this area with the cyber and space domains seen as important factors in ensuring Europe’s communications systems remain safe. Closer cooperation on developing strategic military systems and the support of key technologies are also mentioned as targets.

Amid the sharp ongoing rise in inflation, market unpredictability and the vulnerability of global supply chains, the Czech presidency will also focus on making Europe more strategically resilient when it comes to its economy. In this effort, the Czech government seeks to promote closer trade ties with democratic states around the world and better technological competitiveness rather than going in the direction of a strategically autonomous Europe.

Photo: Office of Czech Government

As its fifth and final priority, the government has also listed the resilience of democratic institutions. Internally, this includes focusing on transparent financing of political parties, an independent media ecosystem, and open dialogue. Meanwhile, Europe’s action plan on human rights and democracy are to be promoted globally.

I caught up with European Affairs Minister Mikuláš Bek after the event and began by asking him about the three R’s in government’s chosen motto “Europe as a task: rethink, rebuild, repower” .

The logo of the Czech Presidency symbolizes the individual members of the EU | Photo: Office of Czech Government

“The keyword ‘rethink’ reflects some of the goals of European policymaking towards the energy sector and towards defence. The situation after the war in Ukraine started is completely different from the past, so we need a thorough process of reflection and we need to make quick decisions. That’s the first word.

“The second is ‘rebuild’, that is an expression for both the physical reconstruction of infrastructure in the sector of energy, but it reflects the discussion on some institutional changes in Europe which are suggested by the outcomes of the Conference on the Future of Europe for instance.

“The last, ‘repower’, reflects both the debate on energy and the proposals from the European Commission aiming at improving the situation in the energy sector before the onset of winter. At the same time it reflects the need to give more power to Europe in its defence capacities and in its image in the world.”

Petr Fiala | Photo:  Office of Czech Government

Ahead of President Zelensky’s speech to the Czech Parliament on Wednesday, Prime Minister Fiala said that the Czech Republic wants to secure candidate status for Ukraine during its presidency as well as tougher sanctions on Russia. Could you explain how you want to achieve that and how do you plan to find consensus?

“The discussion on sanctions will be a difficult one, because they will probably also aim to stop supplies of Russian gas, which is a very sensitive issue for many member states including the Czech Republic. But we expect a discussion on some date that would end these supplies in the future. It is unrealistic to expect a consensus to occur before the winter.

“However, in one year, maybe two, we could see the results of a debate among member states. That’s what we expect. And there will probably be a debate about including more people and companies from Russia on the [sanctions] list. But that’s part of the discussion.

Mikuláš Bek | Photo: René Volfík,  Český rozhlas

“As far as Ukraine’s progress on it achieving candidate status, that is a difficult debate, but we have seen some progress over the past couple of weeks. I expect that there will be a through discussion of this topic during the next European Council meeting where some compromise could already be found regarding an opening for Ukraine.

“The Czech Republic is a strong supporter of candidacy [status for Ukraine], but we are not in favour of some shortcuts. We believe that the standard procedure for enlargement is the best solution for Ukraine, but it could be combined with the French initiative aiming at the European political community.  That could be an instrument of how to include Ukraine and some other countries into some areas of common policy in Europe – energy, communications and so on. So that could probably combined with the candidacy status.”

You have quite a lot of goals on your list. Is there one that you believe you might have a big chance of achieving during your presidency?

“You can never be sure, but from our perspective energy safety is the top issue, because it is connected with the high prices of energy for citizens. Nuclear is not the solution for the short term, so we need to secure supplies of liquid natural gas to Europe, we need to improve certain oil connections in Europe very fast and we need to mobilise some European funding to do that. That will be the task for the Czech presidency in this area.”

Mr Bek said that one informal summit and 14 informal council meetings are planned to take place during the Czech presidency period. While the CZK 2.25 billion that have been allocated for the presidency do not allow for grand festivities, several cultural events are planned to accompany the six month term, including a “Concert for Europe” that is set to take place in Prague on September 2.