The Czech EU Council Presidency: Europe's Role in a Changing World
Europe as a Task was the title of Václav Havel's speech, which he gave during the Charlemagne Prize in Aachen on May 15, 1996. In his speech he emphasized: "To exaggerate a bit, one could say that the task of Europe today is to rediscover its conscience and sense of responsibility in the deepest sense of the word, not only in relation to its own political architecture, but also in relation to the world as a whole." Twenty-six years later, we find ourselves in a situation where Havel's words are more relevant than ever. As the logo of the Czech presidency suggests, the Czech Republic sees itself as a compass needle pointing the direction Europe should take in a new world order.
National scandals amid preparations for the presidency
While preparations for the presidency are in full swing, the Czech Republic is also facing a corruption scandal involving deputy city councilor Petr Hlubuček (a member of the ruling STAN party) since mid-June and his subsequent arrest at Prague City Hall. This has led not only to irritation within the government, but also to the resignation of STAN Education Minister Petr Gazdík. Despite insisting on his innocence, his resignation followed because of his contacts with Hlubuček and as his decision not to harm the government.
Many people now doubt whether the government can provide stability. Back in 2009, the Czech Republic held the EU presidency for the first time, however, domestically the government collapsed after losing a no-confidence vote. There are no signs yet that the drama of 2009 will be repeated. Prime Minister Petr Fiala (ODS - Civic Democratic Party) was very clear about the whole situation and praised Petr Gazdík's voluntary resignation: "Petr Gazdík will not be charged nor will he be investigated. So it's an honest solution, which we have not seen yet from the political elite in recent years."
Five priorities: Tackling challenges head-on
The Czech Republic's priorities can be summarized as a quick-witted response to current events in Europe. While priorities such as deforestation were still under consideration in January, it is now clear that the Czech Republic is not afraid to face current challenges head-on. These include, addressing the refugee crisis and post-war reconstruction in Ukraine, energy security, strengthening European defense capabilities and cybersecurity, strengthening strategic resilience of the European economy and the resilience of democratic institutions. According to the Prime Minister, all five points encompass the Czech Republic's long-term strategic interests and priorities, as well as the values the country has long held and prides itself of.
This of course will not be an easy task. The Czech presidency must also fulfil the Fit-for-55 package. Fit-for-55 comprises a series of regulations and legislation designed to help the European Union achieve its plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030. Nevertheless, the situation has since changed radically. Although the Green Deal remains one of EU's priorities, ending dependence on Russian fossil fuels has become a new goal after the war in Ukraine. Some countries want to rely on nuclear energy and gas and are pushing for these energy sources to be added to the green list. Here, taxonomy or the classification of economic activities according to their environmental benefits will become an important part of these negotiations.
The issue of Ukraine's reconstruction will also be a significant aspect of the Czech presidency such as discussing the so-called Solidarity Fund. It is expected that billions of euros will have to be raised to rebuild Ukraine’s infrastructure and revive its economy. However, the actual amount will depend heavily on the duration and intensity of the ongoing military conflict. The Czech government also seeks to have Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attend the EU summit at Prague Castle in early October.
Furthermore, the Czech presidency wants to address an issue that could theoretically cause tensions between the partners of the Visegrad Group. Prioritizing resilience of democratic institutions means focusing on the protection of media freedom, the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. Poland and Hungary in particular have long been at odds with the EU on this. Those actions are only a confirmation of the signals that could be observed at the beginning of the year when Petr Fiala's government took office. The new Czech government wants to clearly distance itself from authoritarian and nationalist governments. At the same time, the fact that Poland provides the most aid to Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees is expected to mitigate the decisive steps the Czech presidency is taking.
Europe in the race
At the beginning of their first presidency in 2009, the Czechs commissioned the Entropa installation by David Černý for the EU Council building in Brussels. It depicted the stereotypical perception of individual countries and the sculpture attracted a lot of attention.
In 2022, the Czech Republic wants to launch another ambitious project. This time, the Czech Presidency will organize a ten-kilometer race in pairs (each pair must run five kilometers and finish together). The start point and finish line being the Stade des Trois Tilleuls in Brussels, the place where Emil Zátopek in 1954 set the world record in the ten-kilometer marathon. With this symbolic race, the baton of the EU presidency is officially passed from France to the Czech Republic. Let us hope that the baton is passed on smoothly.
Ester Povýšilová is Project Manager at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom's office for Central Europe and the Baltic States in Prague