About us, but without us? Why Czechia should take a bigger bite of the EU sandwich.

by Tereza Čejková

 

The Czech Republic will take over the presidency of the EU Council in less than a year from now. It is a great opportunity for a smaller country to show its leadership ability and take a strong position on the EU’s most important policies.

It was only after the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš suggested that the country should skip its turn to take over the EU Council Presidency in 2022, because “it’s just expensive blathering with sandwiches,1” that experts from various fields, together with media, stepped forward and expressed their desire to take this opportunity properly, as they realise the chance to show the small country’s leadership ability and take a strong position on the most important policies currently being implemented such as Fit for 55, Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan and the New Migration Pact.

In December 2020, the Institute of Empiric Research (STEM) revealed that only 19 % of Czechs know that the country will preside the Council in 2022, compared to 49 % before its first presidency in 2009. There is still a belief in the country that the EU’s approach is one of "about us, but without us,"2 and it is difficult for smaller Member State to achieve their objectives. These numbers are not surprising since the room dedicated to the EU matters in Czech media and education is so little, and accessing clear and reliable information is quite a challenge for the public. Additionally, research by EUROPEUM from 2019 shows that the EU is perceived by the public mainly through subsidies, economic cooperation, strengthening democratic principles, values and security. Politicians play a key role in the debate on the EU, as the Czech public often relates to their views.3 Thus, without an active involvement and openness of the politicians, changing the Czech leadership position of the public to the EU is very difficult.

In June 2021, an open letter co-signed by 300 experts in various fields and stakeholders emphasised the need to strengthen Czech representation in EU institutions. The signatories also deplored that the current budget allocated for Czechia’s six-month term is the lowest of all presiding countries so far.4

In response, the Prime Minister’s underlined the temporary nature of the budget and pointed to sectoral priorities being defined after the elections take place in autumn 2021. However, and given the short timeframe before Czechia takes their seat, it remains to be seen whether these priorities and subsequent budgeting will be achieved in time. This was also noted by Mr. Nikola Hořejš, director of an organisation called Czech Interests in the EU, who expressed his concern about the preparation process, notably about time management.

In terms of policy priorities, clear policy goals are lacking in the Czech’s preparations. In the end of 2020, the Czech government published a framework to set the priorities for the presidency in 2022. It laid down five areas of interest, which, as can be seen through the list below, certainly lack clarity and specific steps to take:

  1. Europe connected by the internal market, modern and prosperous
  2. Europe strong and secure
  3. Europe healthy and sustainable
  4. Europe of cohesion and solidarity
  5. Europe smart and creative

So far, it is known that Czechia wants to set a date for the Balkan countries to join the EU, although a reason for this specific aim is rather mysterious, since it may shift Czechia’s status to “net payer to the EU funds.” Several experts on Czech foreign policy expressed their opinion that Czechia wants to increase its positive image by making procedural progress and by shifting its economic position towards the west. Another important sector of attention for such an industrial country will certainly be the green transition with the country seeking to impact that process. Currently, it appears that the government views this initiative negatively despite financial experts5 claiming it to be a great opportunity for the economic development. Mr. Nikola Hořejš believes it is too late to define Czech position to address these challenges when leading the Council.

A review of these policy areas demonstrates the undefined nature of Czechia’s policy perspectives and approach to these topics, but it does give us an idea of the country’s intentions when it comes to improvements within the internal market and increased digitalisation.

In terms of overarching areas of focus, Czechia has highlighted laudable policy topics such as living environment issues or food chain strategies (Farm2Fork, CAP, sustainable regions) as well as access to healthcare and the prevention and reduction of harms associated with addictive behaviours.

It is difficult to predict whether we will face another variant of the COVID-19 virus, leading to a new vaccine campaign, or working towards economic recovery. At this stage, it appears that this will remain a core priority, but the fact that Czech health Ministers have come and gone like a summer rain since the pandemic began means that how it will be handled remains a question.

Alignment with other facets of the EU’s health strategy is also visible, and it is believed that Czechia will promote the relevant initiatives within the Council’s agenda. In light of Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan and the recently adopted Czech National Cancer Control Plan being implemented simultaneously, it can be expected that cancer will be included among the Czechia’s core priorities and will follow France’s lead on the topic.

At this stage, it is certain that the country’s plan for the presidency won’t become any clearer before elections taking place this October. The current favourites are the Prime Minister’s party ANO, a coalition of Christian Democrats, the Civil Democrats and Top09 named SPOLU21 (“Together21”) and finally a coalition of Pirates and the Party of Mayors and Independents (“Pirates+STAN”). While ANO remains silent on that topic, the two latter candidates outlined their approach to the Council presidency in their programmes and give a general idea of what can be expected if they win. No matter the outcomes of the elections, it is the hope of many Czech citizens that the winners will diligently assume their role both internally and internationally and, to re-use the terminology proposed by Mr. Babiš, take a proper bite of the EU Presidency sandwich.

Prime Minister Babiš described the Council presidency with this term during a press conference in 2019.

A popular saying originating in the Munich Agreement negotiation in 1938.

Research on the the relationship of the population of the Czech Republic to the European Union including its implications for the communication strategies of the Czech government towards the citizens of the Czech Republic is available in Czech language here. Europeum, 2019.

EUR 48 242 200, which equals one-third of the budget for the 2009 presidency.

For example Bernhard Spalt, CEO of Erste Group, in an interview for Seznam zprávy from August 2021 here.

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