By (Mrs) Amb Narinder Chauhan
From July 01 onwards the Czech Republic (CR) takes over the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union(EU) from France. Every six months an EU member state is assigned to preside over the Council of the EU, one of the bloc’s co-legislators. The presiding state sets the agenda of ministerial meetings, acts as an honest broker during negotiations and represents the position agreed by the 27 member states before the European Commission (EC) and the European Parliament (EP). Normally, every incoming Presidency announces its priorities for the next six months. The Czech Republic had signed up to a ‘trio presidency programme’ with the outgoing French Presidency and following Swedish Presidency before the Ukraine war happened necessitating change in the political priorities.
The incoming Czech Presidency has announced five overarching themes of their mandate, namely, the war in Ukraine, energy security, defence, economic resilience and democratic institutions. Unsurprisingly, the Ukrainian crisis and its fallout ranks on top of the Czech political agenda that includes hitting Russia with all EU instruments, most notably economic sanctions, and providing Ukraine with political and military support.
The Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala has outlined Ukraine, energy, and supply chains as among the priorities under the motto “Europe as a task: rethink, rebuild, repower.’The slogan inspired by the late author and the renowned Czech statesman Vaclav Havel, is meant to symbolize the new chapter in Europe’s history opened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Reducing dependency on Russian fossil fuels, raising funds for Ukraine’s reconstruction, and strengthening the disrupted supply chains will be the top of the agenda of the Czech Presidency.
Announcing the priorities, Czech PM Petr said, ’We can say that the world will not be the same after Russia’s aggression. We want to play an active part and rewrite Europe’s future…. The war has shaken the continent’s ‘uncertainties’, exposed its ‘vulnerabilities’ and ‘fundamentally’ altered its security architecture,’ calling upon the EU to tackle these challenges in ‘an active way’, rather than as an observer relying on outside powers.
The Czechs will be expected to address the massive migration wave prompted by the conflict apart from Ukraine’s costly reconstruction. Czech officials say they are determined to work with the European Commission (EC) to relocate funding in favour of member states, including the fellow V4 states of Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, that have opened their doors to refugees, to put in place the necessary structures to manage the humanitarian crisis.
The Kyiv school of economics estimates the Ukraine reconstruction costs could reach Euro 600b, or even more if the war drags on. The EC has floated some initial ideas to raise the enormous amount of money, including special allocations from the EU budget, contributions from member states and, and common EU debt. The debate is still in early stages and the Council has not yet expressed its unified position.
The Czech presidency will also be expected to oversee the discussions on the next round of sanctions against Russia, which were rife with tensions and internal squabbles during the French tenure. The Czechs will be walking on eggshells here. The EU is not united on how much Russia is to be punished. Today Europe is at war with Russia, tomorrow it will have to deal with its European neighbour. The internal political contradictions in many EU nations, such as Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, and France will work in Russia’s favour and determine how far Russia is to be humiliated.
The Czechs will also have to deal with Ukraine’s application to join the EU, which needs to be unanimously endorsed by the 27 countries. If Ukraine is granted candidate status, a lengthy and complex accession process which normally takes 10 years will officially begin. The accession process involves harmonizing internal policies with EU acquis Communautaire, or the EU body of rules, which will not be easy for a country with a long history of communism with opaque systems and one that is counted among the most corrupt nations in the world.
Closely linked to the Ukraine war, energy security will be a top priority for the Czechs, to push forward ‘REPower EU’, the EC’s ambitious roadmap to wean the bloc off Russian fossil fuels, Russia’s primary source of revenues. The plan will cost more than Euro 210b and will be financed through the ‘repurposed recovery fund’. Most of the money will be channeled into renewables and energy efficiency measures, although euro 12b have been earmarked to diversify gas suppliers and revamp oil systems. The Czech Republic was one of the few countries who demanded a tailored exemption to the EU wide ban on importing Russian oil, arguing its links to the Druzhba pipeline could not be replaced in the short term. Following a campaign led by Hungary, another landlocked country, the EU agreed to completely spare pipeline imports, creating a loophole in the final sanction. In recent weeks, the EU has opened the door to filling up gas storage ahead of winter, and voluntary joint purchases of gas to increase the EU’s negotiating weight (as in the case of covid vaccines) that the Czechs intend to further explore.
The Czech presidency will likely focus more on the short-term objective of the energy supply crisis, reduce the negative social and economic impact of high energy prices, remove dependence on fossil fuels, rather than decarbonizing the economy.
The resilience of the EU’s economy will also feature prominently on the Czech presidency agenda. The Czech Republic wants to promote the bloc’s competitiveness in strategic sectors, such as microchips, semiconductors, and strengthen food supply chains, disrupted by the ongoing war. Essentially a trading nation, the Czech Republic is an advocate of open business and with the loss of opportunities in Russia, wants to open doors in other parts of the world. Goaded by the Czechindustry, fresh impetus is expected to be given to the stalled trade deals to bring down barriers and taxes, which France was reluctant to touch fearing domestic pushback during the election period.
The EU, for instance, recently committed to resuming trade negotiations with India which began in 2007 and have been stalled since 2013, a Special Envoy for the purpose has been dispatched to the EU Embassy in Delhi.
The Czech industry has defined the presidency priorities in the economic sector as revolving around three pillars: a resilient and open Europe; a competitive and sustainable Europe; Europe with a dynamic labour market. The CR, in other words, will use the presidency to strive to improve the competitiveness of the European industry and economy. The businesses need a better balance between growth and resilience. As supply chain issues continue globally, businesses are shifting from growth to resilience models; businesses are going, for instance, where labour is. Other economic priorities include the deepening of the internal market, the importance of the European Digital Identity Wallet and a fair data market, which is the aim of the Data Act. Setting global standards for Artificial Intelligence where EU has first mover advantage, and transparency measures, and prevention of misuse of cryptocurrencies is also emphasized.
In the area of defence, the aim is to reduce technological dependence and boost EU’s capabilities to fight hybrid threats, cyber-attacks, disinformation, and foreign interference, while supporting the implementation of the ‘Strategic Compass’, the EU’s long-term strategy that defines its foreign and security policy for 2030. Until now the EU focus was on ‘go green’ and ‘go digital’, now a third dimension is added: security, including an EU Space based communication system.
The Czech Presidency will see major changes in the European security architecture with technological upgradation, more European nations (including Sweden)trying to join NATO, with or without stationing of troops on their soil, and a concerted move towards spending at least 2% of GDP on defence that most EU/NATO members earlier baulked at.
The EU’s Indo-Pacific policy and its management of China is also expected to see further evolution during this period. India is expected to find a prominent place in any discussion on the evolving world order. Recent flurry of visits to and fro between leaders of Europe and India is a case in point.
Finally, the Czech Presidency stresses democratic values, like media pluralism, and the protection of EU democratic institutions. Among the pending tasks will be the ‘conditionality procedure’ that EU has launched against Hungary, which could lead to a first ever suspension of EU funds. This for understandable reasons will be the least of Czech priorities.
The Czechs say they do not want to be a judge, but a facilitator of dialogue between the 27 states. The Czech European Affairs Ministerhas said, ‘The presiding country is not a composer of a particular piece but a conductor who brings the orchestra together. We can perhaps raise the tempo of the pace.’
The idea of taking on such a loaded presidency by the new government which took power in December indicates it has its eyes set on the domestic front. European policy was never on the top of the list of Czech voters. The new government first wants to stabilize its position domestically and is taking a relatively low-key approach to the presidency at home. The ruling coalition is pro-European but ideologically diverse, including everyone from centrists to conservatives to pirates. There are some tensions within the alliance. PM himself is pro-European, a realist, but comes from a party which still has many Eurosceptics; he needs to first find the balance within his own party.
The Czech Republic held its first EU presidency in the first half of 2009. Echoing the Eurosceptic voters’ views, the previous governments did not set aside much funding. The new government has moved to address the funding problem which analysts say has come too late as presidencies are prepared months and years in advance. The advocates state that the presidency can be used to promote some of Czech ideas such as use of nuclear energy; the presidency is an investment that Czechs could benefit from.Equally, the government has been warned as the population is facing high costs of energy and soaring inflation, an additional increase in budget for presidency is not the best solution for domestic political stability.
(Author is former Indian Ambassador to the Czech Republic and formerly Minister at Embassy of India, Brussels accredited to EU, Belgium and Luxembourg. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).