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Ukraine, energy and supply chains: the Czech Republic unveils priorities for EU Council presidency

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By Jorge Liboreiro
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The Czech Republic will take replace France at the rotating presidency of the EU Council.
The Czech Republic will take replace France at the rotating presidency of the EU Council.   -   Copyright  DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP

Slashing dependency on Russian fossil fuels, raising funds for Ukraine's post-war reconstruction and strengthening the disrupted supply chains will be top of the agenda when the Czech Republic takes over the rotating presidency of the EU Council.

The programme was unveiled on Wednesday by Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, under the motto "Europe as a task: rethink, rebuild, repower."

The slogan, inspired by the the late author and statesman Václav Havel, is meant to symbolise the new chapter in Europe's history opened by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"We can say that the world will not be the same after Russia's aggression," Fiala said, speaking to reporters at the Hrzánský Palace in Prague. "We want to play an active part and rewrite Europe's future."

The war has shaken the continent's "certainties", exposed its "vulnerabilities" and "fundamentally" altered its security architecture, the prime minister said, calling on the EU to tackle these challenges in an "active way" rather than as an observer relying on other great powers.

"Together with our European leaders, we will strive to be stronger together and use the strength to benefit those who need it," Fiala noted.

Every six months an EU member state is assigned to preside over the Council of the European Union, one of the bloc's co-legislators.

The presiding state sets the agenda of ministerial meetings, acts as a honest broker during negotiations and represents the position agreed by the 27 before the European Commission and the European Parliament.

The Czech Republic takes over the presidency on 1 July, replacing France.

"This is a test of maturity" for the country, Fiala said. "A test that will not be easy in any case."

Fiala said the five overarching themes of the mandate will be the war in Ukraine, energy security, defence, economic resilience and democratic institutions.

The Czech Republic will focus on addressing the massive migration wave prompted by the conflict and Ukraine's costly reconstruction. The Kyiv School of Economics estimates the damage inflicted by the Russian army could reach €600 billion, or even more if the invasion drags on.

The European Commission has floated some initial ideas to raise the enormous amount of money, including special allocations from the EU budget, contributions from member states and, notably, common EU debt. The debate is still in early stages and the Council has not yet expressed its unified position.

The presidency will oversee the discussions on the next raft of sanctions against the Kremlin, which were rife with tensions and internal squabbles during the French tenure.

The Czechs will also have to deal with Ukraine's application to join the EU, which needs to be unanimously endorsed by the 27 countries. If Ukraine is granted candidate status, a lengthy and complex accession process will officially kick off.

Petr David Josek/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
Fiala said Russia's invasion of Ukraine has "fundamentally" altered Europe's security architecture.Petr David Josek/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Rethink, rebuild and repower

Closely linked to the war, energy security will be another top priority for Prague.

The country wants to push forward REPower EU, the Commission's ambitious roadmap to wean the bloc off Russian fossil fuels, the Kremlin's primary source of revenues.

The plan will cost more than €210 billion and be financed through the repurposed recovery fund. Most of the money will be channelled into renewables and energy-efficiency measures, although nearly €12 billion have been earmarked to diversify gas suppliers and revamp oil systems.

The Czech Republic was one of the few countries who demanded a tailored exemption to the EU-wide ban on importing Russian oil, arguing its links to the Druzhba pipeline could not be replaced in the short term. Following a pressure campaign led by Hungary, another landlocked country, leaders agreed to completely spare pipeline imports, creating a loophole in the final sanction.

In recent weeks, Brussels has opened the door to voluntary joint purchases of gas, an option the Czechs intend to further explore.

The resilience of the EU's economy will also feature prominently on the agenda. Prague wants to promote the bloc's competitiveness in strategic sectors, such as microchips, and strengthen food supply chains, which are under threat by the ongoing war.

Turning the page from the French presidency, the Czech Republic is determined to give a fresh impetus to stalled trade deals. Paris was notoriously reluctant to touch these files, fearing domestic pushback, but Prague has made it clear that trade relations with other like-minded countries, like New Zealand, Australia, Mexico and Chile, should be reinforced through new trade agreements to bring down barriers and taxes.

"The Czech Republic is an advocate of open business," said Mikuláš Bek, minister for European affairs. "It's clear the loss of opportunities in Russia needs to be balanced by opening [new] opportunities in other parts of the world."

When it comes to defence, the Czechs aim to boost the EU's capabilities to fight cyber-attacks, disinformation and foreign interference, while supporting the implementation of the Strategic Compass, the bloc's long-term strategy that defines its foreign and security policy.

"Until now, the EU's transition was around two axes: green and digital. That’s still applicable," said Bek. "But now we have a third dimension: security. And it's clear the entire debate has shifted to a more sober tone."

Finally, the Czech presidency will centre on democratic values, like media pluralism, and the protection of the EU's democratic institutions. Among the pending tasks will be the conditionality procedure that Brussels has launched against Hungary, which could lead to a first-ever suspension of EU funds.

But the Czechs don't intend to be a judge, but rather a facilitator of dialogue between the 27 member states. 

"The presiding country is not a composer of a particular piece that is being played," said Bek. "It is more of a conductor of the orchestra that's playing. We can perhaps set the tempo and the pace."