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Czech European Council Presidency: Mission Defined

Part II: “Europe without Barriers“- A small step for the EU’s institutions, but a big leap for the EU’s citizens

, by Tomáš Ruta

The Czech Republic is going to preside over the EU in the first half of 2009. In the previous article I outlined how the path has been created towards formulating a coherent and constructive Presidency agenda. Now I will elaborate on the main points of the Presidency programme unveiled by the government.

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The key range of issues to be tackled is entitled “Competitiveness, the four freedoms and the liberal trade policy”. “Four freedoms” – free movement of goods, capital, labour, services – have not been realised yet despite being included in the Single European Act of 1986. It is astonishing that although approximately 70% of each EU’s state’s GDP is created by the services sector; there is still no proper single market in services.

The watered-down services directive didn’t manage to do away with the discrimination of service providers from non-domestic member states in many sectors. Labour market entry conditions are still not equal for all: restrictions are being placed on new member states’ nationals en masse for no other reason than to appease the anxities of domestic electorates (think of Wallonia, Austria). Real leaders don’t use polls to find out what positions to take; they lead people to new positions! I consider myself an EU citizen. Yet I am not allowed to work in Brussels, my capital! Unless the employer is ready to pay a hefty work permit for me every month, that is. You bet I am angry. Hard to explain to the ordinary Czechs that we are the EU. Hard to counter their disenchantment and fight off the accusations that we are the “second-class citizens” in Europe. And that is exactly why I am so enthusiastic about the Presidency motto: “A Europe without Barriers.”

The Presidency also committed to discuss “safe and sustainable energy”, although it is hard to guess what solutions it will advocate in this area. The government position on the controversial issues of the energy market “unbundling” and the common EU energy policy towards external partners, notably Russia, is still to be formulated. It will be interesting to see whether the Presidency will grasp the unique opportunity to link the two big scheduled reviews: of the EU Budget and the Lisbon Strategy. Just how big a contribution towards the Lisbon Strategy objectives is the Common Agricultural Policy making? The negotiations with Croatia should also be finalised by then and the Western Balkans and the European Neighbourhood Policy (in Eastern Europe, not the Mediterranean) will get a lot of attention.

The Czech Presidency is bound to be special. Its term will be marked by the election campaign to the European Parliament and the (s)election of the new Commission President. The schedule is also pre-determined by the Lisbon Treaty: choosing the new European Council President as well as what were to be called the EU Foreign Minister will be high on the Presidency’s agenda.

It may well be the last country-led presidency ever. James Rogers at the University of Cambridge, the Editor of GlobalPowerEurope.eu, told me that “if all Member States manage to ratify the Treaty of Lisbon by early 2009, the decision may be taken at a European Council summit, perhaps as soon as June 2009, to formally end the rotating presidency.” Blimey, Warsaw with its 2011 slot or Bratislava (2016) will likely never get a shot at it. Jan Kohout, the Czech Ambassador to the EU, was unequivocal about this when we met last summer: “they trust us to do a fine job, or else we would not have got it so soon”.

This may not be the most ambitious presidency. But let’s just hope we will have a good one.

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- Czech and EU flags; source: Flickr

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- Czechs view freedom as priority for Czech EU presidency - poll, source: ČeskéNoviny.cz

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