VISEGRAD BLOG: EU Presidency offers Czechs chance to transform relationship with Brussels

VISEGRAD BLOG: EU Presidency offers Czechs chance to transform relationship with Brussels
Prime Minister Petr Fiala is not so obsessed with the EU as the ODS’ right wing, and is closer to its typically much more pro-EU voter base.
By Robert Anderson in Prague July 3, 2022

The EU’s Central European members have earned a lot of kudos in the ongoing showdown between the West and Russia over its invasion of Ukraine; now comes the test of whether they can convert that into significant influence over the bloc’s policy direction.

The Czech Republic is first up in the spotlight. It took over the EU’s rotating presidency from France on July 1 at a time when the Ukraine conflict still dominates everything. All five priorities for its presidency are therefore concerned in some way with the conflict: resolution of the refugee crisis and the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine; energy security; the strengthening of the EU's defence capabilities; the strategic resilience of the European economy; and the resilience of democratic institutions.

This should play to the new Czech government’s solid record as a strong opponent of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and a firm supporter of Ukraine. Prime Minister Petr Fiala was among the first Western leaders to visit Kyiv once the conflict started on March 15, and the country was also among the first to send offensive weapons. Czechia has also welcomed some 386,000 refugees.

However, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine will still be a big test for one of the EU’s smaller powers. “Normally we have one or two big crises,” Vendulka Kazlauskas of the AMO foreign affairs think-tank told bne IntelliNews. “We now have a package of crises,” she says, listing Ukraine, energy security, food security, coronavirus (COVID-19), Brexit and the cost of living crisis as among the main challenges.

Moreover, up until now, the country has underperformed in Brussels during its 18 years of membership, and Czechs unsurprisingly have long been among the most Eurosceptic members of the bloc.

The six-month EU presidency offers a once-in-14-year opportunity to address both shortcomings, but last time it was squandered. The first Czech presidency in 2009 is widely regarded as one of the bloc’s worst. It was a farce from its rocky beginning – displaying an insulting map of the EU depicting other countries in unflattering terms such as toilets – to its ignominious end as the Civic Democrat (ODS)-led government fell in a no-confidence vote over alleged corruption. A complete fiasco was only prevented by the professionalism of the Czech diplomats in Brussels.

The current ODS-led government, which took office in November, is also currently wobbling over another corruption scandal – this time in the junior STAN party – though any major changes are expected to be postponed until after the presidency, given the embarrassment the country suffered last time.

Jeering at Brussels

Czech underperformance is largely due to the fact that over the past 18 years much of the Czech political elite have seen Brussels purely in domestic terms, as something to boast about defending Czech interests against. Former premier Andrej Babis preferred to stand alongside Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban and jeer at Brussels, rather than make the effort to build alliances to pursue the country’s interests. His government seemed to regard the looming presidency as something just to be endured, and assigned it a tiny budget (though this has now been slightly increased).

Even pro-EU premiers such as his Social Democratic predecessor Bohuslav Sobotka acquiesced in Orban’s antics by their silence. By failing to establish a clear position, they allowed Orban to claim to speak for them as the self-appointed leader of the Visegrad Group (V4) of Central European nations, and Czechs have consequently been bracketed among the bloc’s problematic members, though in reality they have been too disengaged to be truly problematic.

There is also a lack of knowledge of how the EU works and – worse – a lack of interest. As the late Vaclav Havel, the country’s first president, never tired of pointing out, Czechs often have a parochial mindset, with little interest in what goes on outside their borders.

A report last November found that Czechia had the fourth worst English skills in the bloc. Many ministers in the outgoing cabinet – often lacking foreign languages – did not even bother turning up for EU councils, sending their deputies instead. The current ministers also lack language skills, making it very difficult for them to hold informal chats with EU partners in Brussels, but they have been much more assiduous in attending meetings – at least ahead of the presidency.

The country has also not sent its best people to work inside the EU institutions, and has therefore failed to secure the most important posts. A rare exception is EU Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova, who has probably been the country’s most high-profile representative so far.

This mediocre performance has led to the one outstanding feature of the Czech record in Europe: the country’s Euroscepticism. Polls regularly show that Czechs are among or are the most Eurosceptic in the bloc. This is reflected in a miserable turnout in European parliamentary elections. In 2019 the turnout was 28.7% – the second worst in the EU, but this was actually a huge increase from just 18% in 2015.

“People feel we don’t have a say,” Zdenek Beranek, foreign policy advisor of House Speaker Marketa Pekarova, told bne IntelliNews. “[We need] to convince them we do have a say.”

The ruling rightwing ODS is one of the root causes of this dismal record. The Eurosceptic direction was set long before the country joined in 2004 by the country’s dominant political figure in the 1990s, ODS founder Vaclav Klaus.  Prime minister from 1993-8, Klaus saw himself as a free market champion and bristled at the dictates of Brussels, which he often compared to Moscow's. The European Commissioner for Enlargement in the late 1990s, Hans van den Broek, was once so exasperated by Klaus’s arrogant attitude that he told him publicly that it was not the EU applying to join the Czech Republic but the other way around.

Klaus has now finally admitted that he voted ‘no’ in the 2003 referendum to join the EU. The ODS’s continuing disdain for the EU was a major factor in the country’s disastrous first presidency in 2009 once it returned to power. 

Klaus resigned his ODS membership as he moved to the far right and he is now a much discredited figure because of the dubious pardons in his last term as president, as well as his increasingly bizarre views on climate change and Russia. However, the party has many who still follow his lead, particularly among its MEPs in the European Parliament, who sit in the right-wing ECR group together with Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party and often loudly defend Orban and attack EU “multiculturalism”. The ODS also continues to reject adoption of the euro, even though this is mandated under the country’s accession treaty.

Banging on about Europe

Prime Minister Petr Fiala, who only joined the party in 2013, is not so bound by this tradition. Yes, in the past he supported former US President Donald Trump and said he would have voted for Brexit if he were British. He has also attacked the EU’s policies on climate change, refugees and gender equality, and recently warmly congratulated Orban on his flawed electoral victory.

However, Fiala is not so obsessed with the EU as the ODS’ right wing, and is closer to its typically much more pro-EU voter base. For Fiala, like former UK premier David Cameron, “his number one goal is for the ODS not to keep ‘banging on’ about Europe’,” says Ondrej Houska, EU correspondent of financial daily Hospodarske Noviny.

Fiala also prefers a quiet, consensual approach. Houska highlights the careful – and successful – way Fiala approached the EU’s oil sanctions against Russia, which was sensitive because of Czech dependency on Russian supplies. This was an issue that Babis – like Orban – would probably have used as a club to bash Brussels. “We never threatened a veto, we just stated the issues and negotiated,” says Houska.

Another reason for optimism is that the ODS is much weaker within the four-party centre-right coalition government this time around, and holds just 34 seats in the 200-member parliament. Leading figures in the other three parties – notably Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky (Pirates), Europe Minister Mikulas Bek (STAN), as well as Speaker Markéta Pekarová Adamová (TOP09) are much more pro-Europe and are strongly anti-Orban.

There have been clashes on Europe policy between Bek and the prime minister’s office but relations have improved since Fiala replaced his chief foreign affairs adviser. Typically, Fiala has chosen to ignore provocative statements by his coalition partners, including a proposal by Bek – a former academic colleague of Fiala’s – that the Czech presidency hold a debate about changing unanimous approval to qualified majority voting in some areas of EU foreign policy, in order to prevent Orban’s constant obstructionism. In effect, the Czech coalition has agreed to differ on Orban, which means that it hopes the issue will not raise its head during its presidency.

The sidelining of populist President Milos Zeman, due to serious illness, has also helped the Czech foreign policy stance look joined up for once.

The main concern is that this stability rests on the ODS’s hunger for office after eight years in opposition, and the conciliatory character of Fiala himself; the strains of office against a worsening economic backdrop could eventually bring Fiala’s leadership – and the government itself – into question.

Yet the country’s new pro-EU direction has deeper roots than just one coalition line-up. Much of the Czech political elite traditionally looked to the US for leadership and cared more for Nato than the EU – both those on the right wing, as well as liberals following Havel’s stance. But as US attention has shifted to Asia and its own domestic divisions, the Czech establishment has been forced to refocus.

The Brexit fiasco has also both dispelled any ODS dreams of a “Czexit” and weakened British influence on the continent, meaning that the ODS can no longer rely on the UK and must engage with Brussels.

The Ukraine war may now have brought the US and the UK back into Central and Eastern Europe, but the EU has also performed better than expected in the crisis and the Anglo-American focus on the region may only last as long as the war remains ‘hot’.

This has led to a significant uptick in public support for the EU – according to a Globsec poll last month there has been a 13pp increase in backing for EU membership, which now stands at 80%. However, there remain doubts over how solid this support is – a STEM poll in February showed only 36% were strong or even lukewarm supporters – and whether it would survive for example another migration crisis. A successful presidency could at least give the numbers a further boost ahead of the looming cost of living crisis.

“If the EU is united and capable of acting it can be an extremely powerful player,” says Beranek. “People can see that the EU can be a vehicle that actually helps us to implement proposals that are important for us.”

Breaking out of the V4 straitjacket

This shift in Czech foreign policy is best seen through the new government’s attitude to the Visegrad Group. Orban is now isolated both within the EU and the V4 because of his close links to Putin and his refusal to give full hearted support to Ukraine. Czechia, Slovakia and Poland are continuing to work together but outside the V4 format, for which Budapest held the chair until this month, leaving the regional group moribund. Unusually, no V4 summits have recently being held before EU summits to try to co-ordinate positions.

Fiala himself has built close links with his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki, with whom he travelled to Kyiv. For both premiers, their opposition to Putin is more important than their alliance with Orban. Both men are also Catholic conservatives and their parties are in the same European parliamentary group.

Fiala also has good links with the German right wing – he has said that Bavaria’s CSU is closest to his world view – and he speaks the language well.

More surprisingly, Fiala has also been much more engaged with France, which under President Emmanuel Macron is becoming more involved in Central Europe following the retirement of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, traditionally the main player there. Both Fiala and Macron agree on promoting nuclear power as part of the EU’s climate change policies, though there remain other big differences, particularly over how to negotiate with Putin.

According to Houska, the fact that Czechia is now moving closer to countries like France on subjects such as posted workers and the carbon levy on EU imports demonstrates that it has growing common interests with Western Europe. “As Czechia is getting richer it’s changing its policy,” Houska says. “It’s also interested in protecting its relatively wealthy market from dumping.”

The Czech Republic finally appears to be breaking out of the V4 straitjacket and is building more alliances across the EU to pursue its interests. Beranek welcomes this shift, arguing that the country should be much more flexible and creative in pursuing its interests, for example as a major car producer threatened by tougher policies to mitigate climate change. “We should have as many friends as possible… we should work with ad hoc partners. It’s not exclusive, it’s not against the Germans. It’s how it’s supposed to work,” he says.

The presidency will show how this new approach will work under a stress scenario. Building on the positive international impression created by the government’s Ukraine policy, a successful presidency could transform not just the image of the country but also the country’s self-confidence and support for the EU. The Czechs may even start to believe that – just like for France – close alignment with the inner core of the EU is compatible with pursuing their own interests.