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What are Prague's priorities during its six-month EU presidency?

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By David Hutt
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Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, right, welcomes European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, in Prague, Thursday, June 16, 2022
Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, right, welcomes European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, in Prague, Thursday, June 16, 2022   -   Copyright  Credit: AP Photo

The last time the Czech Republic held the rotating EU presidency, in early 2009, the continent was still reeling from the global financial crisis and the portents of the European sovereign debt crisis were starting to appear.

On Friday, 1 July, it again takes up the presidency of the Council of the EU during another period of emergency. 

In an exercise in crisis management, the Czech Republic aims to bolster regional cooperation in support of Ukraine and find some common solutions to spiking inflation and the ongoing energy crisis.

Yet according to the pessimists, when its presidency ends on 31 December these crises will look a lot worse. 

For the country’s coalition government that entered office late last year, it's a moment to prove its credentials as more pro-EU and westwards-looking than previous Czech administrations.

“The primary interest of our government is to carry out the presidency adequately to the contemporary needs and challenges that lie ahead of us,” Vaclav Smolka, the government’s press spokesman, told Euronews.

Preparations, though, weren’t helped by the previous Czech administration dramatically cutting the presidential budget available for the new coalition government. 

It had to hand around €56 million for presidency costs, compared with more than €150 million it had in 2009.

Prime Minister Petr Fiala recently announced that his government found some additional funds to raise it to €93 million, but the presidency team’s money woes have caused problems in hiring and planning.

A foreign ministry official who asked not to be named said that preparation “could have been better” and that things have been “rushed”.

Credit: AP Photo
Ukrainian soldiers fire at Russian positions from a U.S.-supplied M777 howitzer in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region Saturday, June 18, 2022Credit: AP Photo

Prague wants to get more EU money and weapons into Ukraine

The Czech government announced its five-point policy outline on 15 June. “It will be a war presidency, or hopefully a post-war presidency,” Edita Hrdá, the country’s permanent representative to the EU, told local media.

Ivana Karaskova, of the Association for International Affairs, a Prague-based think tank, reckons that the war in Ukraine will dominate the agenda.

“As a country strongly supporting Ukraine on both the military and political front, the Czech Republic will represent a significant voice in the debate on Russian aggression,” she said.

Prague has affirmed that it wants to do the utmost to get more of the bloc's money and weapons flowing into Ukraine, “using all instruments and programs offered by the EU,” according to the presidency’s formal list of goals.

The Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský vowed last week that his country “will continue to support Ukraine militarily and with material aid and we will continue to strongly back the country’s integrity.”

The Czech Republic’s job was made somewhat easier after Ukraine was awarded EU candidate status last week — one of the stated goals of its presidency. Its work will now be to move that process along.

However, the task has become harder as the European unity witnessed in the first months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has started to disentangle.

There are fiercer debates about whether some countries, such as Germany, are doing enough to militarily support Kyiv. The question of accepting Russian gas imports has also become more heated.

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Natalia Churikova editor in chief of Radio Ukraine. The new Prague-based station broadcasts news and music for the 300,000 refugees who have arrived since the war began.Credit: AP Photo

Helping Ukrainians now and in the future

Analysts say the Czech Republic will prioritise less polarising issues.

“The government understands the need to create coalitions and work as a facilitator of the EU consensus,” said Karaskova.

One will be cementing a more equitable and sustainable policy for Ukrainian refugees within the EU. 

“The EU must take all steps to help best deal with the unprecedented refugee wave,” the Czech EU presidency mission statement reads. “This will require the mobilisation of all available resources and expertise as well as their coordinated use.”

The second task is to advance talks over the reconstruction of Ukraine once the war is over.

This could be difficult, analysts reckon. Debates will be centred on how much EU countries should contribute and how the money will likely be spent. The EU may divide once again between its frugal and spendthrift members. 

A Czech foreign ministry official also said they expect a fight over who should be allowed to participate in the reconstruction.

The Czech presidency’s mission statement explicitly states that financial resources will be needed from “across the free world”, which some analysts have interpreted as a reference to China, one of the world’s largest contributors to foreign investment.

The Czech Republic’s relations with Beijing have soured in recent years, as its ties with Taiwan have improved. Now, there are accusations that Prague will want to make sure that Beijing doesn’t try to gain leverage within Europe by becoming a key financier of post-war reconstruction in Ukraine. 

A Czech government spokesperson wouldn’t comment on this issue.

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Czech Republic Prime Minister Petr Fiala listens during a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in KyivCredit: AP Photo

Climate change and energy independence

As a corollary to the war in Ukraine, the Czech Republic’s second priority as EU president will be energy transition, said Filip Kostelka, a professor at the European University Institute.

“It is about finding a common ground for becoming energetically independent of Russia and limiting CO² emissions,” he noted.

Anna Hubáčková, the Czech environment minister, laid out her goals in a speech on June 20 under the title: “Energy independence, climate neutrality, resilient landscapes”.

Again, the Czech Republic’s load was eased slightly helped after the European Council agreed on 28 June to two of the main general approaches to the Fit for 55 policy, the EU’s environmental centrepiece.

It agreed to an EU-level target of 40% of energy from renewable sources in the overall energy mix by 2030, as well as a commitment to increase the integration of renewables in certain sectors of the Europe-wide economy.

“Fit for 55 creates the basis for decarbonization,” says the Czech government’s presidency statement. “However, the Czech Presidency will focus especially on the thorough implementation of the main short-term objective.”

Although some of the programme’s policies were accepted by the European Council days before the Czech presidency begins, an urgent task will be securing the European Parliament’s approval for labelling nuclear and natural gas as green investments. 

This will likely be debated in July. The Czech Republic has been one of the main proponents of nuclear energy for years.

Will the EU presidency help Prague domestically?

Given these two uphill tasks, other policies will likely fall by the wayside.

According to the Czech government, the three other priorities will be “strengthening Europe’s defence capabilities and cyberspace security; strategic resilience of the European economy; and resilience of democratic institutions.”

For the Czech Republic itself, its second tenure as EU president is deeply symbolic.

“Fully-fledged membership and a united European Union is a strategic interest of the Czech Republic,” said Smolka, the government’s press spokesman.

“Thanks to the membership in the EU, the Czech Republic strengthened its international position and increased its security,” he added. 

“We must also not forget that our foreign policy is defined by democratic values on which the European Union was founded. European policy is, therefore, an integral part of the domestic one and we place a great emphasis on it.”

On the domestic front, it could bring benefits to the coalition government that only took office in December and whose five parties hold a slim eight-seat majority in the Chamber of Deputies.

Yet aforementioned money problems aren’t the only impediment.

Earlier this year, the coalition government came in for criticism after local media questioned the English-language fluency of several of its top diplomats, a key prerequisite for negotiations at the EU.

The five-party coalition is as divergent on domestic issues as it is on the EU. Its parties sit in different camps within the European Parliament, from the Green group to the European Conservatives and Reformists.

Prime Minister Fiala is from the centre-right Civic Democrats (ODS), many of whose members retain the party’s traditional Eurosceptic stance.

Neither has it helped that a corruption scandal this month rocked the coalition government, which entered office professing to be cleaner than clean after past administrations were tainted by graft.

Corruption allegations had been a major source of contention between the EU and the Czech Republic during the tenure of former prime minister Andrej Babis, who was accused by Brussels of illegally accepting EU subsidies for his Agrofert conglomerate. 

The EU threatened to withhold essential EU funds to the country over this case and Babis was charged with fraud by a local court in March. His trial he expected later this year.

“During the first Czech presidency in 2009, the strong media visibility and interactions with leading European politicians significantly improved the then-incumbent's ratings,” said the analyst Kostelka.

“If the presidency is not a blunder, it will benefit the coalition's popularity.”