Czechs take charge

When Harold MacMillan was asked by a journalist what could upset his best-laid plans, Britain’s prime minister sagely replied, “Events, dear boy, events.”

So when Embassy Magazine asked Jan Winkler about the priorities of the Czech Presidency of the EU, the Czech Ambassador wisely took a leaf out of Macmillan’s book.

Pulling out a sketchpad, he showed how time and resources would be divided: time will devoted to the issues inherited from the ambitious French Presidency that need to be safely delivered to the Swedes in July; a slice will be given to “the Czech perspective” of the Presidency; and a large chunk of capacity will be kept free for what the Ambassador calls “contingency planning”.

They certainly needed that spare capacity in the first month of the Czech Presidency, dealing with the crisis in Gaza and the energy dispute between Ukraine and Russia which led to gas shortages in countries in Central and Eastern Europe in the middle of a freezing winter. Then there was the inauguration of President Obama and the careful recasting of trans-Atlantic relations under a new US Administration.

Invisible oil

“You can never be fully prepared,” admits Winkler. “It’s more important to focus on infrastructure and the way of thinking of the presidency rather than priorities and ambitious projects.”

If the Czechs have any ambition for this Presidency, is to be an “invisible oil” keeping the EU engine running smoothly – although the artistic prank which played on some very sensitive stereotypes in Europe did stall the engine temporarily (hardly surprising coming from a nation of inveterate absurdists).

The L Word

Another obstacle to the efficient running of EU machinery is the Lisbon Treaty, which Ireland rejected during the French Presidency. Getting Ireland back on board, says Winkler. “We cannot move ahead without Ireland.”

However, the Czechs themselves have yet to ratify the Treaty. Although the Czech constitutional court has ruled that giving the green light to the Treaty would not be unconstitutional, there is stiff opposition to its adoption within the Czech Parliament, not least President Vaclav Klaus himself. Parliament was due to ratify the Treaty before taking over the helm of the EU, but the timetable has slipped to mid to late February.

The Ambassador is keen to reassure that most parties in the Czech coalition government are in agreement over the Treaty. Having a weak coalition government is not unique in Europe and the outstanding issue of ratification should not hinder carrying out the role of the Presidency, adds Winkler. “It’s just a question of managing expectations,” he says.

“We are the first to feel the blockages of poor infrastructure as Central Europeans, which is why we are promoters of building a European grid, a European pipeline and the diversification of energy resources”

The Three Es

You could sum the Presidency up into three Es: Economy, Energy and External Relations.

The economy

On the economy, common action to revive the EU economy is very pressing looking ahead to the G20 Summit in April. “The danger,” says Winkler, “is that an economic crisis can lead to protectionism and individual solutions for each country but I think this has been partly overcome by concerted efforts by European leaders. In the beginning there were individual responses – but now the question is what more can be done jointly? I think that this G20 summit is rather a political blessing and we shall see what that yields.”

Speaking from a Central European perspective, Winkler adds that the EU must resist retreating into protectionism when it comes to the free movement of labour of the new member states. “This is psychologically important for the new members,” says the Ambassador. “It is important for our citizens to be able to work anywhere they want without obstacles. But most European economies – apart from Britain, Sweden and Ireland – shut their doors, making us feel like second class citizens. Even Britain closed their doors or introduced some regulations.”

Discussions about the competitiveness of Europe will be “very different” from those one would have expected a year ago, says Winkler. Before discussions focused on competing with the emerging economies of China, India, Brazil or Russia. “What we forgot is that their rise was dependent on being the workshop of Europe. And for Russia to prosper, they needed to sell us oil.”

Energy & Environment

Instead, he says, the competitiveness of the European economy will come from being at the cutting edge of technology, particularly when it comes to environmental solutions, which will also reinforce the energy security of the continent. “Energy security is very much a part of the climate package,” says the Ambassador. “And hopefully we will use our technological know-how to be competitive, to lead the field.”

As a landlocked Central European nation without renewables such as wind, tides or hydroelectricity, the Czechs are very aware that Europe’s energy security depends on infrastructure and a resilient Europe-wide energy grid.

“We are the first to feel the blockages of poor infrastructure as Central Europeans, “ says Winkler, “which is why we are promoters of building a European grid, a European pipeline and the diversification of energy resources – including nuclear and clean coal technologies.”

The problem of Georgia is not only a Nato expansion issue; Georgia is very important for an independent pipeline from Central Asia.

“We don’t want to be dependent on Russia’s supplies,” says the Ambassador. “So now there is a new pipeline to Germany which can be used to transport gas from Norway and LNG comes through an Adriatic pipeline. That’s how we see the future of Europe’s energy security.”

External Relations

The spat over gas prices between Ukraine and Russia and the crisis in Georgia underlines the third ‘E’ on the Czech agenda: external relations, and European Neighbourhood policy in particular.

Along with the French, the Czechs have co-chaired two ambitious but realistic initiatives which take in the Southern and Eastern dimensions, namely the Mediterranean Union and the Eastern Partnership (including Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus).

The pro-Atlantic Czechs are now keen to revitalise the Atlantic link with the Obama Administration in America.

Enlargement of Europe should not stop either, he adds. “The countries of the Western Balkans and our Eastern neighbourhood should have a European prospective.”

Managing expectations

The ambitious French Presidency inevitably casts a long shadow, but Ambassador Winkler says smaller EU countries shouldn’t worry having an heavyweight EU country looking over their shoulders. “It’s a fact of life,” he says, “but smaller countries are often very good honest brokers.”

That might well come in handy if EU heavyweights clash over budget issues during the presidency.

The Czechs also have the European elections on their watch in June, which, says Winkler, will probably slow the commission down from May. “We can only rely on a fullsteam commission for two-thirds of our presidency and it’s unlikely to be a bold or reforming commission because no one is going to venture into dangerous territory.”

So the Czechs have picked a challenging time to take charge, but the Ambassador seems relaxed. “The good thing about the EU that it is such a good community and they will not let us down. We feel it is a win-win position: in case of success the Czech presidency will be admired; if the performance is not that good, people will understand. In any case I believe the Czech presidency will be a success.”