The government of the Czech Republic is gearing up for its Presidency of the Council of the EU, starting on July 1. While it is already dealing with a range of domestic challenges and implicated in recent corruption allegations, the continued war in Ukraine looks set to shape its second stint at the helm of the bloc.
The Czech Republic is in the throes of an extremely difficult period. Compounding the impact of several waves of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is dealing with high inflation as well as fears about sourcing energy and an influx of refugees in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Last December, a new government led by liberal-conservative Prime Minister Petr Fiala assumed power. In October’s parliamentary elections, two electoral coalitions consisting of a total of five parties defeated both the right-wing extremists of the Direct Democracy Party and, in particular, the populist ANO party of Andrej Babiš, which has been in power until now.
The change in the leadership of the government triggered expectations of the implementation of more pragmatic policies implemented with an eye on the future, rather than ruling by intuition and the aim of ensuring good PR for oneself. This was underscored by the Czechia Report 2021 of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) highlighted, the country’s poor performance in managing the COVID-19 crisis “was a consequence of the prime minister’s hold on power and desire to seek instant popularity while ignoring or stifling alternative views.”
Six months on, it can be said that the government, which encompasses conservative, liberal-conservative and liberal-progressive forces, is functioning without overt infighting. But big tests are yet to come, in particular with two elections (municipal and for a third of the Senate) which will test the cohesion of the current coalition. Moreover, recent corruption charges at the Prague townhall led to detaining of the city councilor from one of the coalition parties and to the stepping down of the minister of education, who was in past in touch with some shady businesspeople.
An expanding domestic to-do list
In the short term the Czech Republic has to tackle slow digital transformation or housing insecurity, as mentioned in the latest SGI report. Meanwhile, the social safety net - already very leaky and shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic - will be stretched even further by high inflation, and especially by rising energy prices. In addition to the low-income households already in poverty or at risk of it, the middle-income households may also find themselves in financial distress. The government, which is also made up of parties that have hitherto relied on neoliberal economic formulas, may struggle to find sustainable solutions.
Last but not least, the Czech Republic has approximately 200,000 refugees from Ukraine, primarily women, children and the elderly. The solidarity of Czech society towards the new arrivals has been admirable but as the war continues it will be extremely difficult for the state to cope with the new needs for housing, schooling and healthcare.
Taking the helm of the EU
Starting in July, the Czech presidency of the EU has adopted “Europe as a Task” as its motto, taken from Václav Havel's speech in Aachen in 1996. At that time, Havel asked Europeans to rediscover their conscience and to take their responsibility for the assignments that lie ahead of us. The Czech Presidency thus signals much of important work lies ahead for the European Union and that it should be based on values we share.
It will be dominated by consequences of the Russian-Ukrainian war which has shifted Czech foreign, European and security policy. The refugee crisis and efforts to help Ukraine with its resistance to Russian aggression and reconstruction will certainly be key priorities of the Czech semester at the helm of Europe.
Another pressing issue is securing the bloc’s energy supply without using Russian gas, oil and coal - a stated aim that will be hard to implement. Other Czech priorities include strengthening EU defence cooperation - as a strongly transatlantically oriented country, of course, in close partnership with NATO. Among the economic priorities will be a substantial push for supply chain resilience.
Questions are being asked within the Czech Republic about the benefits of the Visegrád Group, amid unease at Hungary's response to Russia's aggression against Ukraine. The government has stressed that it still sees the Visegrád Four (V4) as a pragmatic tool, though EU minister Mikuláš Bek has explained: “It is more a communication platform than a group of same-minded countries.” Czech EU Council Presidency will not be used to promote any V4’s priorities. Interestingly, the four Prime Ministers did not meet for a coordinating meeting prior to the last European Council, what also signals that for the Hungarian policy and rhetoric vis a vis Ukraine, there is little appetite for photo opportunities with Viktor Orbán on the side of the remaining three countries’ representatives. We may expect downgrading of the V4, amid other policies and formats. The Czech Republic will center on the Council Presidency. Poland, on the other hand, will try to promote the Three Seas Initiative or the Bucharest Format of nine NATO eastern flank countries. Thus, the V4 will move off the radar as Hungary cannot play it solo.
All in all, the Czech Republic is facing multiple challenges within its borders and beyond. Its upcoming stint at the helm of the European Union will reveal much about how politically mature and socially cohesive the country is, as well as testing the mettle of its leaders.
Vít Dostál is Executive Director of the Association for International Affairs (AMO) in Prague. He focuses on Czech foreign policy and Central Europe.
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