If France’s President Macron assumed the rotating six-month EU presidency of the European Union at an “inconvenient” moment, the Czech government is taking over at a time that is nothing less than defining for the future of Europe.

The large-scale war started by Russia on the European continent adds to the previous environmental and economic challenges already exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, Prague is particularly suited to take up what is at stake, because of its own recent history in 1938/39, in 1968 and again in 1989.

When then Czech President Václav Havel considered the future of Europe in a speech entitled “Europe as a Task” at the Charlemagne Prize ceremonial in 1996, Havel had in mind a Europe leading by example through the troubled waters of global environmental, social, and economic challenges.

Today’s words of Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala are more defining: “The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown us that our freedom and security are as threatened today as they were in the past. The fight for freedom never ends.”

Pragmatism, in addition to vision

So while the imperative of the French presidency – building what has been called a “sovereign Europe” – is still overwhelming, the Czech government assumes responsibility at a time when it has become a very practical and concrete necessity to implement this goal effectively. For example, by backing French President Macron’s vision of a Europe of “power” with real European military and technological capacity.

The Havel-like slogan the Czech Presidency has chosen – “Europe as a Task” – can therefore be seen as “a call for accountability and determined action.”

Against this background, the defined triple challenge “to rethink, rebuild and repower Europe” is to be understood – with the five priorities defined by the Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU being driven by the goal: “to live up to the expectations of this historical moment.”

The war as an accelerator to confront problems

Minister for European Affairs Mikuláš Bek has said that for the Czech Republic’s second presidency (after 2009), the greatest inspiration in Havel’s texts dwells in their leitmotiv, which is the demand for a critical rethinking of the task that lies ahead for Europe and Europeans. “It is not as if Ukraine is pushing all other issues off the table, but rather that we now have a giant new problem,” says Bek.

Both are reflected in the Czech Presidency’s priorities. From absorbing the consequences of war while remaining in solidarity, to strategically reconsidering interdependence in the crucial realms of energy and infrastructure, to rebuilding deterrence and defense to addressing the root of the problem of an openly revisionist and unpredictable large neighbor of Europe, on to finally economic and social/political resilience.

Priority 1: Managing the refugee crisis and Ukraine’s post-war recovery

Together with Poland, the Czech Republic is probably the EU member state most strongly supporting Ukraine. Prague is delivering heavy weapons and has taken in nearly 400,000 Ukrainians seeking refuge from the war. Czechs have also supported sanctions against Russia from the beginning, despite their own dependency on Russian energy.

This may also be why the Czech government is already looking to ensure that the Czech people’s solidarity remains strong – with the energy challenge and ever higher prices looming large against a background of already high inflation.

Priority 2: Energy security

Here, the Czech government underlines that the EU cannot remain vitally dependent on a single country, Russia, that directly threatens its security. The challenge here is that not all EU member states have the same approach to diversifying their energy supply. The Czech Republic relies on nuclear energy – dismissed by other EU member states. Much discussion will center on finding the right balance between energy security issues and energy transition.

The basis for decarbonization is the EU climate plan “Fit for 55.” However, the decarbonization of EU industry and the transition from natural gas to hydrogen requires implementing ambitious measures to develop hydrogen infrastructure, storage, and terminals. Prague will have to moderate debate around advancing legislation to achieve the “Fit for 55” goals.

Priority 3: Strengthening Europe’s defense capabilities and cyberspace security

Less intra-EU controversy is to be hoped for when the focus is on implementing key topics within the Strategic Compass. The Czech Presidency will center on reinforcing security and defense capabilities in partnership with NATO, including in cyberspace. With recent cyber-attacks on several hospitals, the Czech Republic has had its own negative experience with this issue.

Priority 4: Strategic resilience of the European economy

With the additional inflation shock due to energy shortages, the war and the aftermath of the pandemic, and disruption in commodity markets and supply chains, the need for the EU to handle interdependency strategically is another focal point.

To this end, the Czech Presidency wants to uphold targeted support for Europe’s technological competitiveness based on own production capacities, together with the deepening of free trade with democratic nations all over the world. However, large-scale economic policy reform is not scheduled; Prague does not want to pick up on the French plan of a new European model of growth and investment.

Priority 5: Resilience of democratic institutions

Finally, the large-scale Russian aggression is seen as a wake-up call reminding Europe that long-term prosperity and stability depend on the resilience of institutions that maintain and develop the values of democracy and the rule of law.

Explicitly mentioned are the transparent financing of political parties, the independence of mass media and open dialogue with citizens, as has been advocated by the Conference on the Future of Europe. The Conference’s proposal for a treaty reform Convention (which could start with a qualified majority vote in the Council) is unlikely during the Czech presidency.

Czech leadership is, however, well-placed to implement change in parallel with the European Year of Youth –  which aims to improve dialogue with young people and promote their participation in policy processes. Two successful former university rectors are in the present government.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala led the Czech Republic’s Masaryk University from 2004-2011, and Minister of European affairs Mikulas Bek from 2011 to 2019. Under their leadership, the higher education institution in Brno has become a highly popular place among young Europeans, alongside Berlin and Vienna.

Crisis management versus not losing track of crucial long-term goals

One of the Czech Presidency’s most important goals, candidate status for Ukraine, has already been achieved before. But future challenges for EU expansion and further integration of EU neighbours loom large.

Thus, a particular Czech emphasis is on an informal summit scheduled for October 2022 to focus on future relations with Ukraine and the Western Balkan countries. With that event, the Czech government could not only ensure that help for Ukraine remains ongoing. Obviously, not all reconstruction can wait until the war is over. People in Ukraine have to get through the next winter under even harsher conditions than in the rest of Europe.

Prague can also draw on its own experience during its last Council presidency in 2009 when a similar Prague summit launched the Eastern Partnership, exactly the policy that now needs to be adapted to the recent changes with Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova joining the Western Balkan candidate countries. This option had not so far been formally written down in the EU’s agreements with its neighbours.

In that respect, it is good that the Czech government understands its present task in presiding over the EU as achieving consent over pushing through individual interests. In the words of Prime Minister Fiala: “The task of the Czech presidency will, above all, be to achieve consensus in individual areas and attain all-important unity.”

It will be interesting to observe whether this pragmatic, consensus-driven approach to the EU Presidency by the Czechs will make it more or less likely to achieve progress when it comes to more controversial issues, such as majority voting on foreign policy.

The two former university rectors turned leading politicians want to repeat their former success in the realm of European politics now. In Bek’s words: “I would be very pleased if our EU presidency led to our country being perceived not as a country that seeks to catch up to the West, but as an EU member state with no ifs, ands, or buts.”

About the author

Miriam Kosmehl has been Senior Expert in the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe’s Future Program since 2017 working on the Eastern Partnership region from Berlin.

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