Thursday

21st Feb 2019

Opinion

Domestic politics threaten Czech EU presidency

On the 1st of January 2009, the Czech Republic succeeded France as presidency of the European Union. Even before the Czech presidency took off, it was close to being famous. Unfortunately, its fame was not the result of hope and confidence, but of doubt and distrust.

Domestic developments as well as the eurosceptic attitude of some Czech politicians made Europe question Prague's leadership qualities. While the Czech president and several members of the ODS, the senior governing party, made the headlines with comments criticising the EU, the Czech government faced severe difficulties even surviving. In addition, scandals that broke out in the months preceding the presidency only added to Europe's doubts about the capabilities of its future leading member state.

An outspoken president

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The scandals that led to doubts over the Czech presidency hardly need repeating. They have been spread out at great length in the national and European media all over the continent.

A constant in the scandals seems to be the involvement of the Czech president. While Vaclav Klaus has for years been one of the most ardent critics of the European integration project, his euroscepticism – partly due to the increased attention focused on the Czech Republic – has grown even louder in the past few months. While he was surprisingly mild on the EU in his annual New Year speech, he was strikingly absent on 7 January at the official ceremony inaugurating the Czech EU presidency.

Since the mandate of the Czech president is largely honorary, the biggest damage President Klaus can cause is further undermining the image and credibility of his country inside the European Union. The country was already under close scrutiny from Brussels due to the great difficulties that Prague is encountering ratifying the Treaty of Lisbon in the country, after promising to get the job done in December 2007.

Regrettably, the Czech president attracts international media more easily than those Czech political events that really matter in the European context. Vaclav Klaus has become the eurosceptic poster child for a country that is in reality more moderate and balanced than its representative when it comes to issues of European integration.

Unfortunately Mr Klaus' rhetorical attacks on the European project sell easily.

Fragile domestic politics

Besides the public actions of the president, doubt about the ability of Prague to preside over the European Union also arose due to Czech domestic politics.

Since the Topolanek government was formed in January 2007, political problems have been the order of the day. The government has been plagued by bickering between the coalition partners, the absence of a parliamentary majority and serious party infighting.

There have been four votes of non-confidence, all of which the government narrowly survived. Dissatisfaction on the part of the Czech population led to a crushing defeat for the coalition partners in the regional and senate elections last autumn. These election results only increased the instability that already prevailed on the Czech political scene.

Reasons to be cheerful

Some events, however, give the impression that Prague is aware of the importance of its EU presidency. It appears that at least some of the political actors involved have decided to close ranks and to focus on the EU task ahead.

At a party conference in December, the ODS decided not to vote down Mirek Topolanek as party leader or as prime minister. He won the elections over his opponent and Prague major Pavel Bém, who holds a still more radical opinion on the European Union and opposes the Treaty of Lisbon.

Even the opposition seems willing to bury the hatchet and not to make the life of the government more difficult than it already will be over the next half year.

However, the political scene remains very fragile. The Czech government might survive the next six months, but little is needed to throw it off course.

This became abundantly clear when plans for a government reshuffle last week led to severe clashes between the PM and his coalition partners.

The messy government reshuffle makes clear that Czech domestic politics will remain full of surprises. It is no secret that Prague has assumed its EU presidency in challenging domestic circumstances. While the different political actors seem to grasp the importance of the EU task ahead, it remains to be seen whether they will agree that a temporary ceasefire might do more good than ruining their presidency through domestic bickering and discord.

Seen in this light, the EU presidency will not only be a test of the new member state's European commitment, but also of the maturity of Czech politics.

The author is a Ph.D. student at the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), associated with the Centre for EU studies of Ghent University, Belgium.

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