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Czech Republic braces for rocky EU presidency amid Ukraine war, high inflation

This article is part of POLITICO’s Guide to the Czech EU Presidency special report.

PRAGUE — The Czech Republic is getting ready for a six-month stint as Europe’s crisis counselor.

Russia’s war on Ukraine, galloping inflation and the need to secure the bloc’s energy supply are all crying out for urgent attention. It will be up to the Czechs to make sure officials are able to deliver policy results on all fronts.

Taking over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU from France in July, the Czechs will have their hands full forging common positions on financial and political support for Ukraine, on how to reduce the bloc’s continued reliance on Russian energy and on how to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions in the middle of this crisis.

While some Council presidencies aim to finalize long-running legislative priorities, Prague sees its job over the next six months largely as a crisis responder.

The “leitmotif” of the presidency is “the war in Ukraine and its impact on Europe,” Czech Minister for European Affairs Mikuláš Bek told POLITICO in an interview.

Pointing to defense, energy, values and democracy, the minister added that the war “connects all the important issues we have to deal with today.” 

In past months, however, the Czech government has faced criticism that it isn’t investing enough resources to meet the challenges of being the EU’s lead government.

Officials from the central European country acknowledge they will face financial and political constraints, but argue they’ll still carry out the task.

“We are approaching the presidency modestly,” said one senior Czech official. Prague wants to move forward “those files which are there to be moved — we want to proceed because of the substance, not because something must be done.”

Crisis presidency

Czech officials mainly want to focus on managing the fallout of Russia’s invasion. And they acknowledge that might mean some other policy aims will fall by the wayside.

Among their must-do priorities: securing money for Ukraine and defending the country “using all instruments and programs offered by the EU,” according to the presidency’s formal list of goals.

Prague wants to make sure that support for Ukraine is sustainable while “at the same time keep our economies and energies going — it’s gonna be enormously difficult. People will start to get tired,” the senior official added. 

The Czechs are clear that their focus will fall more on the energy supply crisis roiling Europe, rather than decarbonizing the economy.

“Fit for 55 creates the basis for decarbonisation,” the government wrote in its presidency priorities. “However, the Czech Presidency will focus especially on thorough implementation of the main short-term objective, i.e. remove dependence on Russian fossil fuels.”

But they also push back on suggestions they will simply ignore the bloc’s green agenda.

“It’s not true,” Minister Bek said, “that the Czech government would be lazy in this area.”

Last of our concerns

The irony of taking on such a loaded presidency for the Czechs is that their new government, which took office last December, has its eye on the home front — not on Brussels.

“European policy was never on the top of the list for Czech voters,” said Žiga Faktor, head of Brussels office at the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy. “The new government first wants to stabilize its position domestically.”

And while Prague has ticked all the boxes in its preparations, issuing priorities and organizing events, experts say the Czechs are taking a relatively low-key approach to the presidency at home.

“I don’t think that the Czechs are anti-European, but they just don’t feel that the presidency is something like a crucial or some key issue,” said Petr Just, an academic at the Metropolitan University Prague. 

Opposition politicians also say the government’s messaging leaves a lot to be desired.

“Definitely there is a lack of communication,” said MEP Dita Charanzová, who ran on the ticket of former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’s ANO party. 

The Czech Republic’s ruling coalition is pro-European but ideologically diverse, including everyone from centrists to conservatives and Pirates. At the European Parliament, its member parties sit with the Greens, the center-right European People’s Party and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) groups. 

There are some tensions within the alliance. On Sunday, a scandal prompted the education minister to resign, threatening to destabilize the government, which came to office promising to combat corruption.

Prime Minister Petr Fiala also faces challenges within his own camp, said Just.

A political science professor by profession, Fiala heads the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which forms part of the ECR group along with parties such as Poland’s conservative ruling Law and Justice.  

“The prime minister himself is pro-European, but he comes from the party where still there is a lot of influential people who are very Euroskeptic,” Just said.

Fiala “needs to balance — not between coalition partner parties — but inside his own party,” he added.

The prime minister’s colleagues counter that he’s a pragmatist. Fiala has “always had a very realistic attitude towards the EU,” said MEP Alexandr Vondra, a member of ODS. “I think the party is united.” 

Money trouble

A big part of the challenge will be getting over the legacy of the Czech Republic’s last government.

Andrej Babiš, the former prime minister, was no fan of Council presidencies, lambasting them as wasteful. As a result the previous government set aside relatively little funding for the Czech presidency — approximately 1.4 billion CZK (€56.7 million) compared with 3.75 billion CZK (€151.9 million) budgeted for the country’s last presidency in 2009. 

That budget, combined with rising inflation, meant that the presidency faced hiring problems, controversially hiring some interns without pay. The new government has moved to address the problem, adding 400 million CZK (€16.2 million) to the presidency’s budget, with more funds to come from individual ministries for a total of around 2.3 billion CZK (€93.2 million), according to the Czech representation to the EU.

But the extra funding came “way too late,” said Faktor. 

Presidencies are prepared months and years in advance. Changing course is difficult.

“We could have done more,” said Ondřej Benešík, chair of the Czech parliament’s European affairs committee. “It was not in [the] power of this current government.” 

Nevertheless, the chair — a member of the Christian and Democratic Union – Czechoslovak People’s Party, which forms part of the EPP and is a member of the ruling coalition — said that he believes Prague could still use the presidency to promote some of its ideas on issues such as nuclear energy. 

“It’s not a waste of money, it’s really an investment,” he said. “If the investment is done wisely, then the Czech Republic can really benefit.” 

Officials push back on criticisms about funding. “The government has already covered some requirements from some ministries,” said Bek, the minister, adding that “we are ready to cover some extra expenses as well.”

Even so, costs were kept in check — including by the current government.

“With the high prices of energy and many problems the population is facing, any additional increase of the budget for the presidency would be not probably the best solution for the political stability in the country,” Bek said. “I think we need to be careful.”

“We have to be very efficient and the people will be really tired at the end,” he added. “I wish them a good holiday in January.”

https://ift.tt/OtPmcej June 23, 2022 at 09:30AM
Lili Bayer

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