The Czech Presidency’s uphill battle for unity
The last Czech Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2009 faced its fair share of challenges.
It began with the unveiling of the temporary artwork ‘Entropa’ in the lobby of the European Council building. The piece depicted an airfix kit with each segment representing an EU state. The UK’s space was empty, France had a banner with ‘gréve’ (strike) written on it, and Italy was a giant football pitch. These were the more sanitised national stereotypes in the collection.
When Czech President Václav Klaus addressed the European Parliament in 2009, many MEPs walked out in disgust as the Eurosceptic tone of his speech – much to the President’s own amusement.
The Presidency also encountered a collapse of its government, after Prime Minister Topolánek lost a no-confidence vote halfway through the term. Luckily for the Presidency, it had all but turned into a legislative pumpkin as Brussels geared up for the 2009 European elections that May.
Despite the setbacks and compressed timeline, the Presidency achieved some substantial policy successes, not least negotiating a settlement to the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute at the time.
This year’s Presidency, assumed on the 1st July, is likely to be no less eventful. Its greatest challenge will be maintaining both internal and Europe-wide unity and cohesion in the face of mounting challenges.
The Czech government’s relatively new five-party coalition, with parties ranging from the ODS (part of the ECR political family), the Pirates (Greens/EFA), and the Czech People’s Party (EPP), will have to maintain its own internal cohesion. Leading figures such as the Digital Minister – also the leader of the Czech Pirate Party – may face antagonism between the party’s platform of internet freedom, and its role as a broker between parties when it comes to files such as combatting child sexual abuse online.
As in 2009, the Presidency will focus on brokering agreements on energy, this time within the EU. Higher clean energy ambitions will test those states dependent on either Russian gas, or dirty coal. As winter arrives, will EU member state commitments on energy fall by the wayside?
Unity within the so-called V4 (the Visegrad countries of Czechia, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary) could be tested by Prague’s emphasis on democratic resilience during the Presidency. Fears over democratic backsliding in Warsaw and Budapest have not abated, despite the remarkable manner in which Poland has responded to the Ukrainian refugee crisis. The EU Commission’s recent decision to approve Poland’s post-Covid recovery funding pitted it against the Parliament, with some MEPs threatening to censure the Commission. Prague will have to walk a fine line.
However, these challenges fade into the background compared to Prague’s greatest challenge: maintaining EU unity on Russia and Ukraine.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine generated an unprecedented level of harmony, with sanctions packages adopted in record time, and old taboos about European defence cooperation broken.
However, the prolonged adoption of the Sixth sanctions package revealed cracks in this unity. As the invasion of Ukraine moves away from Kyiv, to a war of attrition in the Donbas region, the declining ‘CNN effect’ may lead to further divergence. With unanimity required in the Council for such decisions, the Czechs will have their work cut out keeping laggard Member States in line, not least Hungary.
Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia’s application to the EU will also test EU unity. A negative decision, or prevarication that puts Ukraine back in the deep freeze, will have a strong signaling effect on Putin. It will also dent the morale of those fighting for Europe in Ukraine. Prague will have to overcome objections to keep Kyiv on its European trajectory and show it is fighting for the Euro-Atlantic perspective that most of its people desire.
Likewise, North Macedonia and Albania continue to be held just outside the EU’s door as membership talks stall over a dispute between North Macedonia and Bulgaria. The disagreement over historical interpretations and language rights shows no sign of being resolved, and Sofia’s government sits on the brink of collapse if it makes any movements towards Skopje.
As a relatively inexperienced Prime Minister, Petr Fiala will have to engage in shuttle diplomacy during the Presidency in order to keep his agenda on track. The Czechs have not hyped their Presidency as a seminal moment, as their French predecessors had done. However, to succeed, Prague must find a way to ensure that the unity of the past six months can become a continuation and not an aberration.
by James Holtum