The Czech EU Presidency is determined by war

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On July 1, the Czech Republic takes over the EU Council Presidency. The office offers little power, but the opportunity to shine nonetheless. What is the government up to in Prague? Bernd Riegert reports.

Czech Republic before probation: Prime Minister Petr Fiala presents the program

The ex-Czech prime minister Andrej Babis didn't want to spend much money on the “chatter with appetizers”. The EU Council Presidency, which the EU skeptic had to prepare for in 2021, was not worth much to him. Only a third of the budget that the Czech Republic shelled out for its first Council Presidency in 2009 was to be spent. In November, however, a liberal-conservative five-party coalition around the new Prime Minister Petr Fiala replaced the populist multi-billionaire Babis. After winning the parliamentary elections, Fiala, a trained political scientist, immediately set about preparing the EU Council Presidency more seriously and seeing it as an opportunity for the Czech Republic on the European stage.

Interns should judge

Traditionally, during the six months of his presidency, the President of the European Union can significantly influence the agenda and promote his own country, even if he has no formal powers. Petr Fiala slightly increased the budget for additional spending during the presidency. But that was only enough to offset inflation in the Czech Republic, which was galloping at 16 percent.

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Therefore, the Czech representation to the European Union is dependent on working inexpensively and relying on interns and student assistants to organize around 200 meetings and events. The interns, who are mainly funded by the EU scholarship program Erasmus, complained in April that their living expenses in Brussels were not being reimbursed by the government in Prague.

“Matriculation test for the Czech Republic”

Despite the poor financial situation, the second Czech presidency should be a success, unlike the first in 2009. During this first presidency, Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek was overthrown by a vote of no confidence. The EU agenda descended into chaos. At that time, diplomats from the old EU states complained that the Czech management had been “embarrassing”.

Solidarity: Czech Prime Minister Fiala (2nd from left) was among the first group of EU visitors to embattled Kyiv in March

Petr Fiala is aware that he and his ministers are being closely monitored. “On July 1, we will take over the Council Presidency for the second time. It's a bit of an exaggeration to say that it is a test of maturity for us,” said the head of government at his press conference to present the presidential program in mid-June.

Ukraine and Indo-Pacific

Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky from the Pirate Party is under no illusions. The Russian war against Ukraine will determine the presidency of the Czech Republic – just like its predecessor France. There will be little room for your own accents. Above all, it is about supporting Ukraine, maintaining the unity of the EU, enforcing sanctions and shouldering the economic consequences of the war. Nevertheless, Lipavsky announced that he also wanted to work for other parts of the world, such as the Indo-Pacific region. According to Jan Lipavsky in Prague, he wants to actively participate in EU negotiations for trade agreements with Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia.

The young foreign minister and “pirate” politician Jan Lipavsky (37) wants to make his own mark

The Foreign Minister also wants to initiate accession negotiations with Montenegro and Albania in the EU. He also hopes that by the end of the year Georgia will meet the conditions to become a candidate country, like Ukraine and Moldova before it. “Georgia has a unique opportunity to accelerate its reforms, seize the momentum and become part of the enlargement,” said Jan Lipavsky at the last meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg. 

Closely linked to Poland

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“After the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the world is no longer the same. We too want to play an active role in shaping what it should look like. Because we have the unique opportunity to write the future of Europe,” says Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala happily . His government advocates the toughest possible course against the Kremlin. According to Fiala, his own Czech experience with the Soviet occupation taught him that. Within the EU, the future Council President is aiming for a close alliance with the national conservatives in the Polish PiS government, for example when it comes to sealing off the borders against asylum seekers who do not come from Ukraine. Nevertheless, the Czech Republic must ensure that Poland finally follows the EU guidelines on questions of the rule of law. “A balancing act,” say diplomats in Brussels.

Unlucky Prime Minister Topolanek (left) 2009: The then EU Commission President Barroso shows skepticism

However, Petr Fiala has made it clear that he does not think much of the solo efforts of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Orban had held sanctions against Russia for weeks and then relaxed them. The old “Visegrad” alliance, in which Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary agreed on their policies in the EU, no longer exists.

Motto: Europe as a task

An analysis by the Czech Internet portal SeznamZprávy stated that the Czech government should not neglect the domestic political problems of the eleven million people, despite all the attention it pays to the EU Council Presidency. According to the unions, the high prices and supply problems could lead to a “hot autumn” of protests. Petr Fiala must be careful that he doesn't fare like his predecessor in 2009 and lose his majority in Parliament in the middle of the Council Presidency. 

Watch the video 06:30

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The Council Presidency will be opened on July 8 with a festive world premiere concert by the Czech Philharmonic in Prague's Rudolfinum. The motto of the Council Presidency is “Europe as a task” and is borrowed from the former president, the writer and civil rights activist Vaclav Havel, who gave a speech on the happily united Europe as early as 1996, eight years before the Czech EU accession, when he Charlemagne Prize in Aachen.