Sunday

5th Feb 2023

Czech presidency to fortify EU embrace of Ukraine

  • Czech premier Petr Fiala said he would try to organise a summit in October with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky (Photo: EU Council)
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The Czech Republic took over the EU presidency from France on Friday (1 July), inheriting a complex and explosive environment in Europe.

Over five million Ukrainian refugees have been recorded across the EU, with 400,000 in the Czech Republic alone.

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Covid-19 could rear its head come winter, and inflation looks to remain high as the invasion of Ukraine has turned into a war of attrition.

Amid all these pressures, Prague aims to "steer through the troubled waters and make it a calm drive," one senior EU diplomat told EUobserver, summarising the mood.

But lacking France's economic and political clout, Prague is also looking to its larger EU and Nato allies for help.

October summit

The Czech presidency wants to use its agenda-setting privileges to push the bigger powers to remain financially, economically and militarily invested in Ukraine.

For this, it plans to organise an informal summit on 6 and 7 October.

The summit is also meant to trigger a broader discussion on the EU's relationship with surrounding non-EU countries.

This will likely build on French president Emmanuel Macron's proposal for a "European Political Community."

Non-EU members, such as Moldova and Ukraine, would be able to participate in a semi-formal decision-making structure.

According to an EU diplomat, Nato members, including US president Joe Biden, as well as the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, will be among the invitees.

However, details are still uncertain and will be only presented in September.

When asked if the Czech presidency will restart the effort to build an EU army, a senior EU diplomat stressed that "the transatlantic relationship is important for the Czech Republic" — a testament to the country's Cold War past.

Rule of law

The emphasis on transatlantic ties will be accompanied by an effort to strengthen domestic EU institutions and the rule of law among member states.

Although the incoming Czech presidency has made much of former Czech president Václav Havel's 1996 'Europe is a task' speech, it is still unclear how Prague intends to achieve reform on this front, however.

As part of the Visegrad Group, Prague has maintained close ties with Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, placing it near the epicentres of the problem.

Poland and the EU have been embroiled in a clash about judicial standards in Poland for several years.

Commission vice-president Vera Jourova, herself Czech and the EU's chief rule-of-law enforcer, has in the past also called on EU members to take a stronger stance on Hungary's flouting of democratic norms.

So far, it is unclear what the Czech position will be.

Czech EU minister Mikuláš Bek has recently played down the importance of the group and described it as "more a communication platform than a group of same-minded countries."

According to the EU diplomat, Czech negotiators view disagreements with Hungary as "technical", not "political."

But it remains to be seen if this view will survive until the end of the Czech presidency.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has broken ranks with the EU on many key political issues, including the Russian oil ban and a global minimum tax.

This has caused much frustration among French diplomats who have said Budapest had used its veto power as a "bargaining chip" to achieve other goals.

Energy

As a landlocked country, another Czech priority in the coming months is to boost the EU's energy independence.

And while the EU Commission has emphasised the need to speed up the transition to renewable energy sources, according to an EU diplomat, the Czechs are likely to push to secure more "diversity" of overseas gas suppliers.

This would mean multi-billion dollar investments in gas pipelines connecting the Czech Republic to sea terminals, which according to the EU diplomat, "could be necessary."

During the French presidency, the Czech Republic allied with other European countries to push for gas as 'green' energy source.

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