Czech European Council Presidency: Mission Impossible?

Part I - Sorting out the “s**t”

, by Tomáš Ruta

Czech European Council Presidency: Mission Impossible?

There is an interesting seating arrangement in the Council of the EU sessions, be it a meeting of one of some 250 working groups, COREPER, the Council of Ministers or the European Council. Member States representatives, as their EU Presidency approaches, sit closer and closer to the current Presidency delegates at the roundtable. Some days ago Slovenia replaced Portugal as the chair with France and the Czech Republic next on the waiting list.

A mere thought of being just “a seat away” from the Presidency would spread panic among the embattled Czech diplomats at the Permanent Representation barely a year ago. There was a new, fragile government, led by a prime minister who once said that the EU Constitution draft was “shit”. There was a widespread fear that the government would not manage to prepare the Czech Presidency, scheduled for the first half of 2009, or would simply not give the Presidency enough attention.

These worries have now been dispelled to a large extent. Firstly, the civil service has finally got accustomed to the new framework for dealing with the European Union. The office of the Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Alexandr Vondra now oversees the whole process, including the Presidency preparations. The communications and decision-making channels inside the triangle “Cabinet Office (Vondra) – Permanent Mission in Brussels/Foreign Office – government departments” have now been established.

Secondly, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), the government leader, seems to have abandoned its radical Eurosceptic position, exemplified by its acceptance of the Treaty of Lisbon. Even though the 2006 party conference bound the party not to “surrender” any further powers to “Brussels”, the ODS-led government did not block the Treaty negotiations (and thus acted against the ODS policy). Vondra explained this move succintly at the ODS party conference in November 2007 (hereinafter “the conference”): “we had no other option but a complete isolation in Europe or a fall of the coalition at home”. The pro-federalist government allies of the ODS, Greens and Christian Democrats, would not allow the ODS to become a new enfant terrible of the EU, a vacancy freed by the departure of Jarosław Kaczyński.

...the Euroscepticism of the rank-and-file ODS membership has been weakened by the new Europragmatism of Prime Minister Topolánek

More importantly, the Euroscepticism of the rank-and-file ODS membership, traditionally sustained mainly by the authority of the ODS founder and current Czech President Václav Klaus, has been weakened by the new Europragmatism of the Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek. He indirectly threatened the party with his resignation (and consequently the fall of the coalition government), should the conference mandate him to veto the Reform Treaty at the December Lisbon summit.

Topolánek’s strategy also “eliminated” the most outspoken critic of the EU inside the ODS, Jan Zahradil MEP. Topolánek chose Zahradil to be a Sherpa at the new Treaty negotiations, thus forcing Zahradil to defend the Treaty at the conference, grinding his teeth. The task to stand up against signing of the Treaty was left to Hynek Fajmon MEP, a lightweight compared to Zahradil. He still managed to get the conference agree on getting the Lisbon Treaty reviewed by the Constitutional Court, and recommended prolonging the ratification process.

The ODS, after all the party with the most pro-European electorate, seems to have come to terms with being more positive about Europe – the unconditional and loud support for the Schengen zone entry would be a proof. Let’s hope they stay on course and the Presidency preparations keep running smoothly.


- Czech and EU flags; source: Flickr

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