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Czech Presidency of the EU: Time for Re-orienting EU Foreign Policy?

2022 / 07 / 20

Soso Dzamukashvili, Contributor policy analyst, Central and East European Studies Specialist, M.A. from the University of Glasgow (UK)

 

On July 1, the Czech Republic took over the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union. As usual, the current presidency will entail ownership over a range of issues and a pertinent diplomatic role in supporting an effective European foreign policy. The Czech Republic, along with other EU member states of the current presidential trio – France and Sweden – have agreed on a number of shared long-term objectives for their 18-month rotation at the helm of the Council, an essential decision-making institution of the EU. These priorities include: protecting citizens and freedoms, promoting a new growth and investment model for Europe, building a greener and more socially equitable Europe that better protects the health of Europeans and fostering a global Europe. At the same time, the joint framework provides some maneuvering space for navigating different national interests and further provides optionality in prioritizing certain targets over others. While the previous French presidency mainly put emphasis on “structural initiatives” directed at the African continent and the Western Balkans, Prague’s agenda is mostly focused on issues in the EU’s Eastern Neighborhood. The current agenda has been substantially influenced by events in the region, predominantly the ongoing heinous and illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Czech government presented its 5-point policy outline on June 15 according to which the presidency will focus on managing Ukraine’s post-war recovery, energy security, strengthening Europe’s defense capabilities and cyberspace security, the strategic resilience of the European economy and the resilience of democratic institutions.

 

Prioritizing the Immediate Neighborhood

The current presidency marks the Czech Republic’s second time in the position since 2009. ‘Europe as a Task: Rethink, Rebuild, Repower’ is the presidency’s official motto. The priorities set by the country make it clear that the war in Ukraine will dominate the agenda for the next semester. The Czech government has been strongly supporting Ukraine both on the military and on the political front ever since the Russian army invaded the country. Thus, Prague is set to represent a strong voice in the debate on Russian aggression within the EU. The Czech government has already made it clear that it has a willingness to allocate significant funding and military assistance for Ukraine under the framework of instruments and programs offered by the EU. Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský has vowed that his country will ‘support Ukraine militarily and with material aid and we will continue to strongly back the country’s integrity.’ The Czech Republic’s job has been made somewhat easier as Ukraine was awarded EU candidate status in June. The main task will now concentrate on pushing the assistance forward. The status of the presidency will play a significant role for Prague in efficiently delivering aid to Ukraine. At the same time, the Ukrainian leadership must already be steered towards embarking on the reform path demanded by the accession process. Prague, to this end, could facilitate the process by creating a roadmap to identify issues where progress is both necessary and achievable in the near future.

Furthermore, one of the main foci of the Czech presidency will be the revitalization of the Eastern Partnership initiative and supporting democratization across the region. It is noteworthy to mention that the program was established during the Czech presidency of the EU Council in 2009. Since then, the initiative has remained one of the priorities of Czech diplomacy. Prague has played an active role in attempts to resolve the crisis in Belarus and has been actively immersed in an extraordinary summit of EU leaders and provided significant assistance to Belarusian civil society and pro-democratic opposition representatives who had to flee Lukashenko’s regime. Now, during the current presidency, one of the set priorities of the Czech presidency is supporting democratic institutions. Furthermore, the current incumbent center-right coalition led by Prime Minister Petr Fiala is considered as more democracy-oriented than its predecessor Andrej Babis’ ANO party. Considering these factors, there is a high probability that the Czech Republic will push democratization in its immediate neighborhood. This might have a strong impact on the Georgian government’s reluctance to implement democratic reforms which will help the country eventually accrue EU candidacy status.

 

Tug-of-War Between Energy and Sanctions

Relations between the Czech Republic and Russia have been at their lowest point since 2021 when the two countries found themselves in a tit-for-tat diplomatic clash regarding the alleged involvement of Russian spies in the 2014 explosions at a Czech munitions depot. Now with a new pro-EU government, the Czech Republic might push for more and tougher sanctions against the Kremlin. The conversation around a possible seventh sanctions package has started looming on the horizon. In a speech to the Czech Parliament on June 15, President Volodymyr Zelensky indeed called on the EU to take such action by imposing a complete embargo on Russian energy. In the meantime, Prime Minister Fiala has already confirmed that his country would opt for ‘supporting the hardest sanctions against Russia.’ Nevertheless, it may seem strenuous for Prague to secure the essential unanimous approval within the Council of the EU to achieve the sweeping range of restrictive measures. Varied national foreign and security interests of EU member states may turn the plan into a Herculean task.

While some states, such as Germany, have not done less than other countries to support Ukraine, European unity witnessed some challenges in the first months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The main issue of the emerging debate has been Russian gas imports. Skyrocketing energy prices and overall soaring living costs have already inflicted a heavy toll on European consumers and pushing for more sanctions can put the Czech presidency between a rock and hard place. If EU member state governments are to unanimously agree on a tougher stance against Moscow, they would be required to take unpopular policy decisions at home and will have to compensate for any complete decoupling from Russian energy by seeking ad hoc solutions to guarantee energy supplies for the upcoming winter. These problems may confront the priorities of the Czech EU presidency throughout the second half of 2022.

Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that the urgent energy security issue is projected to enhance Europe’s quest for strategic autonomy in non-military domains. Prague might ensure enough gas storage for next winter by working for voluntary joint purchases of gas so that the EU uses its political weight in a way similar to the collective purchase of vaccines. This could be effectively accomplished in cooperation with Azerbaijan as well which has recently expressed interest in transporting its energy resources to Europe. The Czech presidency with its immense interest in the Eastern Neighborhood could push the EU’s intentions to cooperate with the South Caucasus as well as Central Asia with regard to further investments in the development of free and sustainable transit along the corridor. Considering energy resources in Azerbaijan and Central Asia, the EU could also diversify its energy supplies and decrease its dependence on Russian gas which, according to statements of EU officials at the Versailles Summit, has become a new priority for the EU in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the meantime, as the Union is starting to think about the post-war recovery of Ukraine, Prague could also play a significant role in coordinating a transatlantic reconstruction plan aimed at pragmatically specifying roles, responsibilities and funds for each partner in this endeavor. A joint initiative for the reconstruction of Ukraine would be a political signal that transatlantic society is more united than ever, especially when it comes to recognizing Ukraine along with other Eastern European countries as a full-fledged member of the Western democratic world.

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