On 1 July 2022, the Czech Republic took over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for six months. Our office Directors in Brussels and Prague, Eva van de Rakt and Adéla Jurečková, analyse the priorities of and challenges facing the Czech EU Council Presidency.
On 30 June 2022, France handed over the baton of the EU Council Presidency to the Czech Republic. The Czech government has selected the slogan “Europe as a Task” as the motto for its Presidency, in tribute to the title of a speech made by Václav Havel in 1996, at the awards ceremony of the International Charlemagne Prize in Aachen. The Czech government chose this not only to foster “reflection on Europe and a re-evaluation of many of our current approaches and premises”, but also as an interpretation of Havel’s words as a call to take more responsibility for global ecological, social and economic challenges. In 1996, Havel described the task of Europe as follows: “In a somewhat exalted way, we might say the task of Europe today is to rediscover its conscience and its sense of responsibility in the deepest sense of the word, not just with regard to its own political architecture but also with regard to the world as a whole”.[i]
In his speech, the first President of the Czech Republic spoke of the history, current status and future of Europe. He referred to threats to civilisation, potential conflicts, limited resources, damage to the environment and growing social inequalities. Many of the concepts reflected in this speech are so uncannily topical today that it is well worth taking another look at the speech Havel made all those years ago through today’s eyes.
Havel’s uncannily topical ideas
Six and a half years after the fall of the Iron Curtain and eight years before the first round of EU Eastern enlargement, Havel highlighted the political need for European unity. He described the EU as a peerless attempt to make Europe into a unified, democratic space of solidarity. He went on to call upon the EU and NATO to “reassure Europe clearly as a community of values that they are not closed clubs”. All those years ago, he expressed the crystal-clear intention and purpose of European unity: “It may sound paradoxical, but European unification has never meant limitation of freedom in the sense of expropriation of certain rights of the citizen by an increasingly distant power. It has been just the opposite – a process enhancing people's freedom (…). It seems to me that it is only now, with the European Union launching a new round of talks on its future and with discussion on its common foreign and security policy under way, that Europeans and European politicians are beginning to recognize the full magnitude of this deeply political dimension of the European unification process.”.
It is significant and certainly no coincidence that Havel underscored the importance of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. The question of how the EU can deal with autocratic regimes in the future and avoid dependency structures will play a central role in the coming months and years, and a rapid increase in strategic capability in foreign and security policy thinking and action at the EU level is urgently needed. . The process of a foreign, security and defence policy response to Russia’s aggression must be carried out at European level. After a long and irresponsible phase of political shortcomings, this process must in particular include – and take seriously – the historical experiences and concerns of the EU Member States and partners from Central and Eastern Europe. In this context, it is a huge opportunity that the Czech Republic will take the role of moderator in the EU Council up to the end of the year 2022.
The priorities of the Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU had to be reworded in the course of the last few months, in the context of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and the resulting rapid and dramatic changes in the political framework conditions. The Czech Republic has selected the following five priority areas for its Presidency: (1) managing the refugee crisis and Ukraine’s post-war recovery, (2) energy security, (3) strengthening Europe’s defence capabilities and cyberspace security, (4) strategic resilience of the European economy and (5) resilience of democratic institutions.
Support for Ukraine
The Czech EU Council Presidency intends to support Ukraine in the defence of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, in which the EU will use “all instruments and programmes (…), including the strengthening of sanctions”. The priorities quite rightly stress that the “EU’s and its Member States’ political and military support for Ukraine is in our vital interests in order to ensure security in Europe”. Ukraine’s recovery is also seen as a major task, particularly restoring critical infrastructure, ensuring basic services and supporting Ukraine’s economic recovery and stability.
As regards receiving war refugees from Ukraine, the Czech government lists the following particular focuses: creating the necessary structures, long-term integration, support for the most affected EU Member States, access to education and employment market (including childcare), ensuring healthcare. With this in mind, we can only hope that the current attitude of welcome on the part of many central and eastern EU Member States will in the long term feed into a fundamental paradigm shift in EU migration and asylum policy, which has been blocked since 2015 by mainly, but not only, the Visegrád countries.
Security of supply and energy transition
The Czech government lists ending dependency on Russian fossil energy imports as the most critical short-term aim. Under the heading of the resilience of the European economy, the document stresses that the EU “must drastically reduce its dependence on hostile or unstable regimes” and conclude trade agreements with “democratic nations in the world”. The section on energy security pledges that the “Czech Presidency will put emphasis on the EU’s energy security issues, which are currently more pressing than the energy transition”. Diversification of sources, energy savings, acceleration of the transition to “low-emission and renewable energy sources”, filling up gas storage facilities in the run-up to winter and energy efficiency are all listed as priority themes. It is certainly useful to draw a distinction between short- and long-term solutions and strategies, as it is clear that we will be on the horns of many dilemmas in the coming weeks and months and that we will have to make tough energy policy decisions. It is also excellent news that the significance of savings, renewables and energy efficiencies are highlighted and that steps will be taken to mitigate the negative social and economic fall-out of the high energy prices. Yet it is misleading to give the impression that energy security is more important than the energy transition, as these are in fact both sides of the same coin. An ambitious implementation of the European Green Deal is an absolute prerequisite for energy security and building cooperation between EU Member States and EU neighbours is, and will remain, key to this. The fact that the Czech Presidency intends to “deal with the role of nuclear energy in ensuring the EU’s energy security and meeting the EU’s climate goals” is unfortunately, however, a false signal. Expanding nuclear energy across Europe cannot provide an answer to the current challenges, as we require long-term solutions to end our dependency on Russia and mitigate the worsening climate crisis. Quite aside from all the risks and dangers associated with nuclear power, it is the most expensive, least flexible and most time-intensive form of energy generation, as it takes years to build new reactors. Every euro and every Czech koruna invested in new nuclear power plants will jeopardise energy security and worsen the climate crisis, as capital is tied up in them and this money cannot be invested in alternative efficient, sustainable options.
Resilience of democratic institutions
It is significant that the government of a Visegrád country has listed the resilience of democratic institutions as a priority, as this distances it from the governments in Budapest and Warsaw. The Czech government stresses that “Russian aggression once again reminded us strongly that Europe’s long-term prosperity and stability are based on functioning democratic mechanisms. The Czech Presidency will therefore focus on strengthening the resilience of institutions that have a major influence on maintaining and developing values of democracy and the rule of law in the EU. These include, for example, transparent financing of political parties, the independence of mass media and an open dialogue with citizens”.
Explicit reference is also made to the Conference on the Future of Europe, dialogue with young people and their involvement in political processes, with particular reference to the context of the European Year of Youth 2022 , as well as a focus on respecting and strengthening freedoms and European values in both off-line and online environments. At international level, the Czech government pledges to implement the Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, using all instruments at its disposal, including potential sanction mechanisms.
What is surprising is that the global food crisis is not mentioned anywhere in the priorities, as this is very much an area in which the EU must take responsibility for the world as a whole, to borrow a phrase from Havel. Obviously, however, this does not mean that the subject area will be irrelevant at EU level in the coming months.
The EU Council Presidency as a task
Even though it will be no mean feat to put together political responses and hammer out solutions in central policy areas between the EU of 27, we can still hope that the Czech Presidency will be able to bring fresh impetus. The German federal government will have an important role here, as it will have to support the efforts of its neighbour to mediate between EU Member States, uphold the unity of the EU, assist Ukraine and stop Putin’s warfare. Naturally, this does not mean that all positions of the Czech government must be shared. But against the backdrop of Russia’s brutal war of aggression in Europe and the resulting devastating consequences, risks and insecurities, we must stand together to tackle the difficult and complex questions of the present and future. Here, the Czech Republic is an important partner within the EU.
Its Presidency of the EU Council also provides the opportunity to strengthen pro-European voices and general awareness of and interest in European matters in the country itself, as the Czech Republic has for many years belonged to the most Eurosceptic EU Member States’ club. There are many reasons for this scepticism – first and foremost among them no doubt the failure of many politicians to make the case for the European project, to explain the benefits of EU membership to the Czech people and to take on an active and constructive role within the EU. During his term in office between 2003 and 2013, former Czech President Václav Klaus constantly repeated his mantra of “defending national sovereignty” against the “dictate of Brussels”. He obviously did not see the future of Europe as his mission, but rather campaigning against European integration. This has left its mark on the population. Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine has certainly set a trend reversal in motion in this regard. The current survey “GLOBSEC Trends 2022” shows that compared to 2021, far more respondents would vote for the country to remain in the EU in the event of a referendum: in 2021, 66% answered in the affirmative, rising to 80% in 2022. A recent Eurobarometer survey confirms this development: in spring 2022, 54% of respondents in the Czech Republic (EU 27: 65%) agreed that membership of the EU is a good thing, an increase of seven percentage points on last autumn.
The Czech Prime Minister, Petr Fiala, furthermore, is considerably more pro-European than his former ODS party colleague, Václav Klaus, and the ODS members currently sitting in the European Parliament alongside the Polish PiS MEPs in the Eurosceptic, nationalist European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR). Additionally, a number of pro-European parties make up the five-party government coalition, including the Czech Pirate Party, which holds many portfolios of significance to the EU Council Presidency, in the person of the Deputy Prime Minister for Digitalisation and Minister for Regional Development Ivan Bartoš and Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský. At the European Parliament, the Pirate MEPs are members of the Greens/EFA group.
It is extremely welcome news that the Czech government is distancing itself from the negative influence exerted for years by Václav Klaus on the country’s image of itself as part of the EU. For it is unquestionably high time to look back on the legacy of Václav Havel, who issued this remarkably prescient warning as long ago as 1996: “unless democrats proceed in a timely manner to build the internal structure of Europe as a single political entity, others will start building it their way – and the democrats could be left with only their eyes to cry with”.
This article was first published in German on boell.de.