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Czechs To Focus On 'Three E's' During EU Presidency

In the run-up to the Czech Republic's assumption of the EU Presidency, RFE/RL correspondents Kathleen Moore and Oksana Pelenska spoke to Czech Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Alexandr Vondra. They began by asking him to outline the Czech Republic's priorities.

Alexandr Vondra: For about two years now, we've been talking about "Europe Without Barriers" as the motto of the Czech presidency, because what's of greatest value really is European integration as a wide space where nations and people can cooperate without any obstacles, whether it's the free movement of people or goods, services, capital, or, these days, information and skills.

We want the EU to continue this trend. This is not an easy time, of course, with the financial crisis and the economic downturn, with various protectionist tendencies growing, but I think it's important for us not to lose sight of what European integration has been built on from the beginning.

As for the working program, we've got three main priorities that we call the three E's: Economy, Energy and Europe in the world. When we say "Europe in the world," that means to the west, working with the new U.S. administration, as well as to the east, where we expect that during our presidency the EU's "Eastern Partnership" will be established with six countries -- Ukraine, Moldova, the three Caucasus states [Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia], and Belarus.

RFE/RL: There have been worries about the Czech Republic taking over the EU Presidency, due to the government's political instability as well as President Vaclav Klaus's vocal criticisms of the EU. What do you say to those concerns?

Alexandr Vondra, Czech deputy foreign minister for European affairs
We have no worries, we've been preparing for two years and we're sure we will manage it professionally. Of course, the Czech Republic is a medium-sized country, it won't be such grandiose leadership like the French president attempted to do because we have to take into account what our realistic options are, the size of our country and its position in the union. But we will moderate the complicated discussions between all the European players and we'll manage it, without a doubt. We're looking forward to it.

If someone underestimates us or has worries, then I think we can only pleasantly surprise them; it's a better starting position when there are questions or misgivings, even. If there were great expectations and we were unable to fulfill them, that would be much worse. Czech politics is as it is, of course, the election systems here produce very tight results and it's complicated then to find a majority in parliament, but we have long experience with that and I think we'll manage.

The Klaus Factor

What about the concerns that Klaus will overshadow or damage the Czech presidency?

Vondra: The president has strong opinions on certain issues, he likes to get into exchanges of views, he likes to present his opinions -- there's nothing new under the sun there, we know it. His role in the constitutional system is clearly defined, it will be the prime minister who presides over the EU Council and he has the mandate for that from the governing coalition and from the EU-27.

I think it's one of those "evergreen" topics, journalists like it because they like to reproduce any kind of juicy statement, but this is freedom, democracy, we have to be able to live with it and deal with it when there are different opinions on things, and not make a big deal out of it.

RFE/RL: What kind of role can you see President Klaus taking during the presidency? You mentioned recently the possibility of his representing the EU during a meeting with Russia.

Vondra: We're talking about it. President Klaus will visit the European Parliament in April where he'll have a speech, that's a relatively usual role for presidents during the EU Presidency.

He'll meet with the European Commission during its visit to Prague for its talks with the government, we expect that if there will be some high-level meetings in Prague, then he could play the role of host, but the meetings of the European Council will be led by the prime minister.

What is possible is that [Klaus] could lead the meeting with Russia during the EU troika summit that should be at the end of the six months.

How do you expect to get the different points of view together, for example France and Germany haven't been so happy with the Eastern Partnership program compared with the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic, which have more of an understanding for Ukraine and Georgia's policies and could support them. Will the Czech Republic be able to put together the EU in that sense, to support the program, so that the EU has a united voice?

It's always difficult to find the intersection where the views of 27 states meet on foreign policy, mostly we have to reach a consensus in order to reach agreement. I think in relation to these countries we will have something to offer, the concept of the Eastern Partnership, meaning to strengthen relations with countries like Ukraine and Georgia, is a good one. The European Commission responded to repeated initiatives from Prague, Warsaw, or Stockholm with this extensive document, which has suggestions about how to strengthen the cooperation.

I think there's a lot of room here for creativity, we'll use tools like bilateral cooperation, multilateral as well. That means we can do something all together with these countries , but at the same time these countries are all different, and they have different levels of development. So we'll make a kind of menu with all these countries, with each one separately and this will give us a road map for cooperation. It might concern visa-regime liberalization, though of course it's a given that these states must pledge to better protect their borders. It could concern a deepening of trade and economic ties, right up to those deep agreements on free-trade zones. It might concern close cooperation, say in energy.

There are many options, and I believe we'll be able to generate the financial resources for it.

Improving EU Cooperation

With the global financial crisis, will the Czech Republic be able to support any states outside the EU, from these six in the partnership, to help them weather this period?

Vondra: There's no money to spare, of course, with this credit crunch, but on the other hand it's an opportunity to support investment projects in infrastructure, which could help in economic recovery -- clearly in the area of several projects, for example energy security, which will be one of our priorities, connecting the energy networks, the gas and oil pipelines. I think there's room also financially to support projects that would increase the connectivity not just within the EU but also between the EU and these countries.

RFE/RL: There is a long-standing issue between Ukraine and the Czech Republic -- that of visas. There's a new program under preparation, there's also an agreement between Schengen countries and Ukraine that should make it easier for Ukrainians to get visas, but still practically nothing has changed, there are many problems and the Czech media have been writing about alleged corruption at a number of Czech consulates in Ukraine. Is there any intention to do something within the Eastern Partnership to make it easier for Ukrainians to reach the Czech Republic?

Vondra: We have limited options for acting alone as the Czech Republic, since we're a member of the Schengen zone, but within the EU we will definitely push for more progress in this area. The Eastern Partnership is an opportunity, it's an opportunity for future cooperation, no one should have any illusion that everything will come at once, we have to take it step by step.

It's important for people to be aware in Ukraine that it's not an obligation for the EU to liberalize the visa regime, it's possible only on the basis of a bilateral agreement where both sides, Ukraine and the EU, are clear that such a step will bring more advantages than risks.

Nothing is free in this world, there is nothing like a free ride, and countries for instance in the Balkans, where this process is going on, and they are closer in terms of European integration, they could tell a thing or two about how hard it is and how they themselves have to do their homework.

RFE/RL: On further EU enlargement, you suggested recently you would like to see Croatia's accession bid speeded up. However, Slovenia has blocked Croatia's accession talks because of a border dispute. What can the Czech Republic do to move this issue forward in the coming months?

Vondra: I don't think further EU enlargement can be the victim long-term of one bilateral dispute between Slovenia and Croatia. The negotiations have not been blocked completely, Slovenia has only blocked the opening of some new [accession] chapters.

It's true that during 2008 Croatia's negotiations slowed down a bit, but the important thing is to remember the end goal. We really want the talks this next year to progress so that they can be closed by the end of the year. We will definitely talk with the Croatians, with the Slovenians, so that we have progress on this next year.

Extending A Hand To Belarus

If Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is invited to the EU's Eastern Partnership conference, what do you think he should hear, or what would be the aim of his visit?

Vondra: We are counting Belarus as one of the partnership countries, it's an important country, we want to support its links to the EU. We are of course open to cooperation that can have great prospects, but that depends of course on the Belarusian leadership, including President Lukashenka, if he uses this extended hand, if you will. It's not unconditional, it's not just for the sake of it, we will of course follow closely how the situation develops in Belarus.

We made a friendly gesture in the autumn when we revised the visa-ban list and after this six-month suspension we will very carefully evaluate what has changed and what hasn't. It's up to Belarus now to make use of the situation. The openness is there from our side, but it's not endless, we will want basic human rights and freedom to be respected in Belarus, otherwise there are no prospects for cooperation.

RFE/RL: While we're on the subject of a warming in relations between the Czech Republic and Belarus, and the EU and Belarus, could this lead to the Czechs cutting assistance, for example in student exchanges or other humanitarian programs?

Vondra: Definitely not, I hope. On the contrary, the Eastern Partnership means efforts to mobilize financial resources so that the cooperation has something to go on, so we don't expect to reduce the resources that we use to support the development of ties between the Czech Republic and Belarus and the nongovernmental sector in Belarus.

RFE/RL: What are your benchmarks or criteria for being able to say in July that the Czech presidency was a success?

Vondra: I think the key things are if there's agreement on the economic recovery plan. Every country has room for its own measures, and the freedom to choose its own mix of measures. It's important for us to fulfill the target that we set at the end of the year, about the total amount of measures in terms of the EU.

On the other hand it's important for us to keep a kind of modus vivendi because the short-term measures can help in economic recovery, but on the other hand they can also lead to a breakdown in public finances in individual countries, which could have a destabilizing effect on the euro zone and the whole EU. So to sail between Scylla and Charybdis isn't going to be easy.

Second, on energy security, I would be glad if we were able to make progress on some projects on connecting, for instance, the energy-isolated islands of the Baltics to the EU, or the Nabucco project or other infrastructure projects. We'll be glad if the Eastern Partnership comes into being and we will be glad of course if we are able to find agreement with the U.S. on solving some key issues like the situation in Afghanistan or the Middle East, or on how to tackle the challenges connected with climate change.

In six months you can only get so much done, but if we get progress in two of these areas then I will consider it a success.