Home The Washington Diplomat December 2009

Czechs Take Over EU PresidencyAmid Lingering Euro Skepticism

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The Czech Republic takes over the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union in January, an occurrence that Czech Ambassador Petr Kolar told The Diplomat would have been “unthinkable” when his country was admitted to the EU in May 2004.

But many outside observers find the Czech presidency ironic because the country’s own president, Václav Klaus, is a notorious skeptic of the EU and its bureaucrats. But Kolar sought to dispel any notion that the Czech people as a whole are anti-EU.

“Our position was clear — we wanted to be in NATO and the European Union,” he said in an interview with The Washington Diplomat at the spacious Czech Embassy near Rock Creek Park. “More than 70 percent voted for [EU membership] so there is no question that we are committed Europeans and we believe in this project of European integration.”

Nevertheless, Klaus — who has been president since 2003 and was re-elected in 2008 — is often referred to as “euro-skeptic” or “euro-phobic” in the press, but Kolar said the president is simply giving voice to a relatively small segment of the Czech Republic who feel the move toward integration is happening too fast, and at the expense of their national identity.

“He’s articulating some concerns that are relevant so don’t say ‘shut up,’” Kolar said with a smile. “It’s better to take it seriously, be positive, and look for some ways to avoid in the future the reasons that people are irritated by our leaders and our development.”

But some people are clearly getting irritated with Klaus. In Ireland, for instance, many accused Klaus of undiplomatic meddling when he blatantly criticized the Lisbon Treaty — along with top Irish officials — during a recent state visit. That treaty, which aims to streamline the 27-member bloc, was rejected by Irish voters in June 2008. “I have no reason to be another European to urge Ireland to do something,” Klaus said, warning that the treaty would result in a “fatal restriction of the national sovereignty.”

To prevent that from happening, Klaus is actively campaigning against the document, abandoning the governing Civic Democratic Party of Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek — a party Klaus founded nearly 18 years ago — and supporting a newly formed euro-skeptic party just as the country prepared to take on the mantle of the EU presidency.

In December though, Topolánek won a new mandate to lead the Civic Democratic Party, confirming him as head of the Czech government before it assumed the EU presidency. Topolánek agrees that some of the gripes against the Lisbon Treaty are legitimate — namely that it will reduce individual countries’ veto rights while raising the power of big EU states — but he still supports the treaty as a necessary evil to be in the European club.

Klaus clearly doesn’t think so, and the controversial and combative president isn’t shy about expressing his disapproval. But Kolar — a soft-spoken, amiable envoy who previously served as ambassador to Ireland, as well as deputy minister of foreign affairs for bilateral relations — emphasizes that the criticism should be handled in a constructive way.

“If our president sometimes articulates some doubts or concerns about the way the European Union is integrated, we should take it as a normal feature of democratic debate,” the ambassador said. “Maybe he is concerned about Brussels bureaucrats who don’t care about the national identity.”

To that end, Kolar pointed out that unification has happened too fast for some Europeans to digest. “It is not only a Czech problem,” he said. “The signal is clear that people feel uncomfortable. This is the challenge for people with vision — political leaders —to overcome this gap between them, the so-called Brussels guys and ordinary people.”

Furthermore, Kolar said it’s important to remember that the EU is an unparalleled entity that has helped to stave off the wars and division that plagued the continent for centuries. “This is a very historical and very wise system,” he said. “The European Union is our future and our destiny.”

That’s exactly why Kolar said his country of 10 million is excited about the EU presidency and has committed the time and resources to do the job right, which includes launching an official Web site, www.eu2009.cz. Czech leaders, recognizing a unique platform to showcase their country, also plan to scatter EU meetings across different regions of the republic, instead of restricting them to the political center in Prague.

As president of the EU, the Czech Republic will be responsible for mediating policy discussions among member nations and representing the bloc in talks with international organizations and non-EU states. Kolar said his country has devised a leadership agenda consisting of three interrelated “Es”: the economy, energy and external relations. But the Czech leadership wants to spur debate on these issues, not dictate an agenda. “We will try to be the moderator,” Kolar said.

One of the thorniest policy discussions will center on climate change and how to implement mandatory carbon emission standards to control it. French President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed hard for a deal during the French presidency that ended in December, but came away largely empty-handed.

“Hopefully we will be able to conclude something,” Kolar said. “It will be very much up to the Czech presidency to moderate those debates to some result.”

The right-leaning Czech government though is among those in the EU most resistant to climate change mandates. (President Klaus in fact has openly derided the concept of manmade global warming as a “religion conceived to suppress human freedom,” and said his country will make no special effort to tackle climate change.)

But Kolar stressed that many of the objections to EU mandates are largely economic and that his country has nothing against environmental protections.

“We want to work toward a cleaner environment but we must be fair to those countries that are still developing, who aren’t able to meet these criteria without slowing down their economies,” Kolar said. “We understand their situation and we need to reach a compromise.”

Those countries include Poland — which relies on high-polluting coal for more than 90 percent of its electricity — along with Italy and other Eastern European nations that have so far blocked a proposed EU climate pact to slash greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by the year 2020.

Kolar said his own country is not a heavy polluter and that the Czech Republic could actually stand to benefit under a cap-and-trade greenhouse gas regulatory system. Cap and trade, also under consideration in the United States, allows countries with heavy emissions to buy the right to pollute in the form of emission credits sold by countries with cleaner air — a concept being discussed for Poland’s coal-dependent economy.

Although Kolar described his country’s emissions as low, the Czech News service in December reported that the Czech Republic is among the EU’s worst polluters, with carbon dioxide emissions of 12 tons per person compared with the EU’s average of about nine tons per head.

Kolar said his government is amenable to investing in clean energy research to cut down on the pollution, but he cautioned that any discussion of alternatives such as renewables and biofuels should be grounded in reality. “It’s sad to see that so much of our energy is consumed by this dialogue about genetically modified chickens and corn,” he said with a chuckle. “We can’t ignore that it needs time and money and energy to invent something new. And it is, in fact, my belief that we human beings will discover [an energy source] that today we can’t imagine.

“But at the same time we shouldn’t ignore our need for oil and gas — it’s still very high,” he added. “And we shouldn’t forget that most of those sources are in the hands of sometimes strange regimes. We need to not be so vulnerable to blackmail and being bullied.”

To that end, he stressed that traditional fuel production and energy security should not be put on the backburner, especially as energy-rich Russia becomes increasingly erratic in supplying oil and gas to parts of Europe.

“There are resources in Azerbaijan, Armenia and elsewhere,” he said. “We need to have pipelines going to Europe from that part of the former Soviet Union, not just from Russia. If we don’t have enough supplies — safe and secure energy resources — our economies will not be able to perform efficiently.”

Just as the Czechs are wary of too much environmental regulation, they are also skeptical of current efforts in some EU quarters to impose strict regulatory controls on the financial sector, especially hedge funds and credit rating agencies, in response to the current economic crisis.

“We simply believe that a free market with some barriers is the best way for healthy growth,” Kolar said. “Of course there should be some regulations. I believe that capitalism without the rule of law won’t work. It would be a jungle.

“At the same time we don’t believe this protectionism is helpful,” he argued. “Open, free trade is the best way to confront a challenge like we have today.”

Kolar said he is relieved that the Czech Republic’s financial situation isn’t nearly as dire as in many other European countries so that it can focus on the task at hand as it takes the helm of the EU presidency. “Not that there won’t be a slowdown, but there is still growth,” he said of the Czech economy. “It was 6 percent last year and now we may be only 2 percent.”

Much of that slowdown can be attributed to the fact that the Czech Republic exports some 70 percent of the goods it manufacturers, which makes it vulnerable to other weakening economies. “It has nothing to do with our financial sector or banking,” the ambassador noted. “We don’t have bad loans.”

Indeed, the Czech Republic boasts one of the most developed and industrialized economies of all the former communist countries in Eastern and Central Europe. According to the State Department, astute economic management since the Velvet Revolution of 1989 has led to the elimination of 95 percent of all price controls, large inflows of foreign investment, increased domestic consumption and industrial production, and a stable exchange rate.

And although budget deficits have risen in recent years, the country’s debt is still low relative to many of its European counterparts. That’s not to say the Czech Republic hasn’t made its share of financial mistakes. In fact, during the 1990s, the country had many of the same problems now plaguing economies in the United States, Germany and France.

“We had our recession in the late 1990s,” Kolar said. “We went through a hard time and we learned some lessons. We were growing dramatically and everything was privatized and GDP was growing and people were all happy,” he recalled.

“Everyone thought we all would be capitalists living lovely lives, and suddenly reality caught up,” he continued. “There were banks that loaned money without serious checking. But through that we are now in better shape. The banks are very conservative now. They make loans, but good loans, not bad loans.”

It’s a lesson the United States is now learning, although Kolar is optimistic about the prospects for the new administration. “We believe with President Obama there is a great chance to improve many relations with Europeans and the rest of the world,” the ambassador said, though he added that he didn’t think outgoing President George W. Bush was a bad leader either.

“I think that history hopefully will be more fair to this leaving president, who was not bad at all from our perspective,” he said. “From 9/11 until now nothing bad happened here from a terrorism point of view — no attacks.”

Nevertheless, the diplomatic Kolar said he welcomes Obama’s new style of leadership but at the same time hopes that Czech-U.S. relations remain on solid ground. “There is a lot of speaking about change, OK,” he said. “But besides this change hopefully there will also be a lot of continuity, especially in foreign policy.”

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 9, 2014