What are the possibilities, priorities and lessons learned for the Czech government?
Rotating among the member states of the EU, the current French Council presidency will terminate by the end of June 2022 and the Czech Republic will proceed to take charge. Coming after one of the most dominant members of the Union and in a time of deep political, economic and, most importantly, security turmoil, the Czech Republic awaits an uneasy task. Furthermore, the seeming challenge is anticipated by the relatively young government of Petr Fiala, for which the upcoming presidency could mean further stabilization of position in both domestic and international contexts. Another issue seems to be the perceivably harmed reputation of the Czech Republic in the EU, stemming from the fairly disastrous experience of the last Czech Council Presidency in 2009, during which the Czech parliament vote of no-confidence led to the presidency continuing with the resigned government. Such deliberations raise the question of what the dispositions of the Czech Council presidency in 2022 are. What is the current vision for the approaching presidency and what lessons can be learned from the previous one? This article will look at the overall theory of the Council presidency, the successes and failures of the 2009 presidency, and the possibilities of foreseeing the upcoming one.
Despite the varied opinion among scholars on what exactly is expected of the country presiding over the Council, the standardly assumed functions are administrative role, setting of the political priorities and agenda, and representation of the Council. Scholars like Adriaan Schout or Philippa Sherrington also assign the presidency the role of pursuing and defending national interests. And while the general expectation might be that the presiding state would ultimately aim for the role of “honest broker”, the argument remains that the presidency provides an exceptional possibility for the presiding country to transpose its concerns and issues into action, shifting the working agenda of the EU in the desired direction.
There is also a visible discrepancy over the expected behaviour of the state during the presidency. Elgström a Tallberg provide two perspectives on the Council Presidency: the Rationalist and Sociological. The Rationalist perspective interprets the Council Presidency as an opportunity to pursue the national interests by formulating different priorities and relying mainly on the domestic context in interaction with other member states. The successful Rationalist presidency arises from the effective formulation and assertion of domestic objectives during the mandate. On the other side stands the Sociologist perspective based on the logic of appropriateness. The underlying deduction is for the presiding state to behave in a way that other members would expect it to. The authors of this dichotomy emphasize the generally expected role of the “negotiator” or the individual expectations based on the specific country’s identity. It is, therefore, necessary to identify and understand the selected perspective of the presiding member state before making judgments on its mandate successes or failures. So which direction did the Czech Republic select in the past? And which direction will it take this time?
Political Success vs. Media Catastrophe in 2009
In their close examination of the 2009 Czech Council Presidency, Kaniok and Smekal make a clear statement: “..the Czech term fulfilled the basic tasks and functions expected from an EU Council presidency. However, weak media presentation of the Czech presidency and several controversial events led to a perception of the presidency as a catastrophe and confirmed previously expressed concerns.” The reasoning behind this argument, setting a clear guide for their entire study, becomes justified by their analysis of the course of the Czech Presidency, with emphasis on its priorities and outcomes, coinciding with the media portrayal. The priorities of the 2009 Czech Presidency were outlined clearly. The subtitle “Europe without borders” of the working programme expressed, according to the Government’s Office, the strive toward Europe “without internal, economic, cultural and value barriers”. The priorities were also summarized in the 3E programme, the “Economy, Power Engineering and EU in the wider global context”. Given the problematic conditions at the start of the presidency – the violence in Gaza Strip suspended Russian gas supply to certain member states, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the approaching economic crisis – the Czech Presidency faced an uneasy task.
Despite these hardships, the Czech presidency seemed to have succeeded in its goals. Firstly, in terms of its economic priorities, it tackled protectionist tendencies. This success was visible in the acceptance of new legislation, dealing with internal market or administrative weight. Another positive outcome could be the implementation of the service directive which required various important changes in the laws of all member states and set up aspiring projects, such as the Points of Single Contact. Thanks to the efforts of Alexander Vondra, at the time minister of European affairs, the topic of power engineering received great attention. Equally visible successes were the restoration of the Russian gas supply and the authorization of the Third energy package. The thorough preparation of Czech negotiations seemed to have paid off. Linking back to the dichotomy of approaches towards the Presidency, outcomes of the Czech agenda in 2009 seem to demonstrate a rather rationalist perspective, where the Czech Republic exceeded all the “sociological” expectations.
Yet the problematic aspect of the Presidency was the general depiction and interpretation of the public. Kaniok and Smekal claim the Czech Presidency had underestimated the importance of media portrayal. Episodes similar to the controversial art installation by David Černý, contentious statements from president Václav Klaus or vehement focus on the reputation-destroying resignation received great attention in the media. The vote of no-confidence marked a turning point, as after it the media only focused on the weakened and damaged mandate and not the actual actions. Given the success in fulfilling its agenda priorities, the Czech Presidency in 2022 should perhaps reflect on the mistakes of 2009 one, mainly in the area of media portrayal.
Visions and Plans for 2022
The Czech Republic will begin its historically second Council Presidency in July. The preparations and execution of the mandate will fall within the competence of the Section for European Affairs of the Government’s Office, conducted in close coordination with all the departments, yet most importantly with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Fiala´s government has also renewed the post of Minister of European Affairs.
Some of the preparations for the Presidency date back to the year 2018 and presently, the Government’s Office is at its peak in terms of organizational readiness. What shall be kept in mind is, that the Czech Republic cannot launch its whole campaign just yet. Such behaviour could be, mainly by France, perceived as an attempt to take away the spotlight from the currently presiding state. But despite the legitimate caution, the Government Office has already published a document identifying the general topics of the priorities, aiming to lay out a basic framework for the Presidency. The document outlines five main areas of interest. The first is “Modern and Prosperous Europe connected by the internal market”, which deals with issues related to digitalization of the internal market, strong and stable financial market, simplifying the tax system and many others. The second area, “Strong and secure Europe”, addresses defence, security, migration, external borders, hybrid threats or energy security. “Healthy and Sustainable Europe” is the third area of priority, emphasizing the environment and its protection or food quality. Fourth comes “Cohesive and Solidary Europe”, which highlights the issues of a functioning labour market or dealing with various demographic changes. Last, but not least, the fifth section, called “Smart and Creative Europe”, concentrates on strengthening and developing European research and education, mental work mobility, and the support of cultural and creative industries.
Apart from these individual areas of priority, the Czech Republic is a part of the “trio” along with its predecessor, currently presiding France, and Sweden which will succeed the Czech Republic. The trio agreed on certain priority areas, listed in the “Council 18-month programme” for the period between 1 January 2022 and 30 June 2023, prepared by the French, Czech and Swedish Presidencies and the High Representative, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Council. The programme foregrounds such issues as dealing with the pandemic consequences, devoting significant attention to the issues of health systems and their cross-border implications, and expressing the need for the continued building of the European Health Union. The trio also underlines the importance of creating impulses toward developing relations with strategic partners, such as the transatlantic partners or emerging powers.
The Government’s Office seems to be fully aware of the seriousness and significance that the Presidency of the Council carries. As emphasized by the official statement on possible areas of priority, thanks to the Presidency the Czech Republic has “a unique chance to take advantage of the media attention that the presiding country traditionally receives, and present itself as a successful country, filled with capable and creative people.” The Government’s Office is fully cognizant of the significant impact on the Czech prestige and influence in the following years and gives the impression of intending to utilize the opportunity to its full extent. And while it is yet impossible to foresee which of the two, Sociological or Rationalist perspectives, will be employed during the Czech Presidency, the current one seems to be on the right track in understanding the importance of portrayal, prestige, and reputation building.
Predictions and Recommendations
Predicting what will occur during the upcoming Czech Presidency is an uneasy task. The government is currently facing various challenges, such as the ongoing Russian invasion in Ukraine and consequent rapid growth in refugee inflow and gas prices, along with rising inflation and overall public discontent. The 2009 Presidency had its own comparable issues, yet, what seemed to have harmed it the most was the domestic political scene. The main challenge, however, seems to be the ability of the 2022 Presidency to avoid underestimating the media portrayal. The Presidency gives the Czech Republic a unique opportunity to publicize itself in the best light possible, but in 2009 the domestic political struggles irretrievably damaged the Czech reputation. We must keep in mind that even in the basic models of consumer behaviour, it is not the “identity” of the country that plays a crucial role in the perception of the “product”. Much more importantly, it is the perception of the “image” of the country in the consumer’s mind. The Czech “image” abroad should be placed alongside some of the highest priorities of the Czech Presidency. Will the Czech Presidency be able to avoid the mistakes of 2009 and evade episodes that could further harm its reputation and image?
Coincidentally, but in the situation also, unfortunately, there are visible similarities between the 2009 and 2022 cabinets, both consisting of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) in coalition with other two partners (at the time the Greens and Christian Democrats). The Civic Democratic Party at the time has been characterized by the concept of “Euro-realism”, coined by its main proponent, and at the time president Václav Klaus. “Euro-realism” viewed the EU as dominated by big powers striving for the fulfillment of their interests, with smaller states benefiting only in the case of strict protection of their sovereignty and rejection of further integration. Such a view explained the government’s reluctance towards the Lisbon Treaty or the Constitutional Treaty. The current government coalition, on the other hand, values the Czech membership in the EU deeply and clearly states that the Czech Republic belongs to the West. Will that provide the current government with the stability necessary to withstand all the challenges coming with the Presidency?
One should not forget that the entire performance of a presidency also depends on factors beyond the control of the presiding state. It also depends on the overall “mood” among other EU actors, their cooperativeness and willingness. And while some of the actions are the direct result of Czech decision making, the possibility of “tsunami scenarios”, or unexpected events, requiring immediate EU action deserves attention as well. The French Presidency had to deal with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, what awaits the Czech Republic?
Answering these and numerous other questions is an impossible task at the moment, nevertheless, it is safe to say that the Czech Republic awaits great opportunity as well as an immense challenge. The following six months could determine the Czech position within the EU, yet also within the wider regional context and the international system. Given the fact that a substantial part of the Czech political scene underwent a process of Europeanization during the last Presidency, the 2022 Presidency could also serve as a critical moment for a further decline in peculiar Czech Euroscepticism. And while the current cabinet seems to be on the right track in terms of preparedness and motivation, various subversive and unexpected events could arise. Hopefully, the following half-year will be a positive turning point for the Czech Republic, allowing it to achieve all of its objectives, as well as merit and prestige.
Source of the picture: https://www.
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Author: Daniela Monsportová