Czech Republic takes over EU presidency under a cloud of uncertainty

Czech Republic takes over EU presidency under a cloud of uncertainty
Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, credit: Czech Presidency

The Czech Republic took over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union on 1 July. During a six-month period, the country will lead the work of the Council, building co-operation and agreement between the member states.

With a logo symbolizing the 27 EU member states in the shape of compass needles, it wants to reflect the motto of the EU - “United in diversity”.

The Czech presidency follows the presidency of France and will be followed by the presidency of Sweden. The trio of countries – France, Czech Republic and Sweden – have drafted an 18-month programme aiming at ensuring a smooth transition from one presidency to another but each country has also specific issues that need to be addressed during its presidency.

France and the EU could not prevent Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. The biggest concern and challenge for the Czech presidency – and for the whole of EU – will be tackling the impact of the invasion and putting an end to the war which still rages on with no end in sight.

As already reported, the Czech presidency is likely to differ in style from the French presidency, given Czechia’s more Eurosceptic stance on certain issues. The country joined the EU in 2004. According to an opinion poll in 2020, only 33% of Czechs believed that EU membership was a good thing, while only 47% would vote to remain in the EU. The next six months could change how Czechs view the EU.

The Czech Republic has chosen, like France, to present its programme under the motto of three key concepts: Rethink, Rebuild and Repower.

Europe as a common task

In his message on the eve of the launch of Czech presidency, Prime Minister Petr Fiala underlined the impact of the war in Ukraine on the presidency. “The task of the EU and the Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU is to assist Ukrainians who are currently fighting for their homeland and for the freedom to choose their future.”

The Russian invasion has triggered the largest population movement in Europe since the end of WWII. The Czech presidency will focus on effective European cooperation and solidarity to achieve the long-term successful integration of refugees into the societies of the EU member states. Another important task of the Czech Presidency will be the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine.

The Czech presidency is inspired by a speech in 1996 by Václav Havel, the first president after the fall of the iron curtain, who stressed that the tasks ahead of Europe deserved careful and thorough reflection. Havel called on Europeans to rediscover their conscience and to take responsibility for global environmental, social and economic challenges.

Today the challenges, following the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s aggression, are even bigger. The Czech presidency believes that a common reflection on EU’s tasks must first and foremost find the “right recipe as quickly as possible for a policy mix that will ensure security and peace in Europe and lead the EU towards reaching the long-term goals of the green and digital transitions”.

While the trio programme is structured around four thematic priorities, the Czech presidency has added a fifth priority: managing the refuge crisis and Ukraine’s post-war recovery. The other four priority areas concern energy security, strengthening EU’s defence capabilities including cyberspace security, and the resilience of the economy and democratic institutions.

Priorities and unfinished business

The Czech Republic has been preparing for the presidency during the last three years but it represents something of a moving target. “Despite all planning, we need to be flexible and ready for what might be coming,” underlined ambassador Edita Hrdá, permanent representative of the Czech Republic to the EU, at a press briefing for journalists on Monday on the priorities of the presidency.

A concrete example of what the Czech presidency wants to achieve is to ensure enough gas storage for next winter. It plans to finalize the gas package and the regulation of gas reserves, which was prepared by the French presidency, towards the end of the year. It is also ready to work for voluntary joint purchases of gas, so that the EU uses its weight in a way similar to the purchase of vaccines.

The main short-term objective is to reduce the dependence on Russian fossil fuels. The already decided oil sanctions will enter into force towards the end of the Czech presidency and it has no plans to initiate sanctions on the import of natural gas from Russia. “If the war doesn’t stop, there will be more sanctions,” ambassador Hrdá said. Ukraine prefers sanctions against Russia rather sooner than later.

Her colleague, ambassador Jaroslav Zajicek, added that renewable energy is the “name of the game” but he did not believe that going 100 % renewable is feasible. Nuclear energy will also continue to play a role in some member states, he said.

Other important issues are the Fit for 55 Package on climate change and the New Migration and Asylum Pact, where the Czech presidency is ready to launch trilogue meetings between the EU institutions.

The French presidency left some unfinished business, especially as regards the enlargement process in the Western Balkans. It is still unclear if the revised French proposal for a solution of the dispute between North-Macedonia and Bulgaria over issues of historical narratives and language will be accepted by them.

If they would agree, intergovernmental conferences on the start of accession negotiations with North  Macedonia and Albania could convene without further delay, ambassador Hrdá assured.

But this is hardly likely to happen. Bulgaria is in the middle of a government crisis and is heading for elections in September. North Macedonia is hardly keen on including bilateral issues in the EU negotiating framework as proposed by France.

Another issue is the European perspective of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The European council summit on 23 June declared that it was ready to grant candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ambassador Hrdá said it could happen during the Czech presidency but it prefers to wait until after the general elections in the country. A crucial issue in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the need for constitutional reform.

The previous council summit discussed a French proposal to launch a political platform, called ‘Wider Europe’, with countries in Europe with which the EU has close relations. The Czech Presidency plans to organize a Conference on Wider Europe. It does not replace the EU-Western Balkans summit, but if there is no progress in the Western Balkans, the presidency sees no point in organizing such a summit.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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