The 2009 Czech presidency of the EU and the Eastern partnership

, by Jules Bigot

The 2009 Czech presidency of the EU and the Eastern partnership
Image: Jules Bigot

The Czech Republic’s role in the shaping of the Eastern Partnership is extremely interesting to address, not only because it was established during its 2009 Presidency of the EU, but also because of the apparent contradiction existing due to the country’s position as a former Eastern Bloc country uninterested in the political matters of the eastern European region. The Eastern Partnership was established in 2009 during the Czech Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Aiming to foster deeper political association and economic integration with the eastern neighborhood region of the EU, it was a reinforcement and specialization of the pre-existing European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), policy gathering all the countries in ‘Neighborhood’ of the EU (South, South-East, East).

In this article we will take a look at the historic evolutions of the Czech Republic’s commitment in favor of enhanced cooperation with the countries in the eastern region of the EU, as well as the political context of the country’s full involvement in the Partnership which led to the Eastern Partnership Summit in May 2009.

1: A period of distance from the Eastern neighborhood

The distance which the Czech Republic kept from the Eastern neighborhood region of the European Union for a couple of years after its independence can be explained by a number of factors both historical, political and economic. In this regard, two periods of the short history of the Czech Republic’s history can be analyzed.

The first period is the one following the country’s independence from the USSR. The Czech Republic shared the Soviet period with all of the countries which emerged from the fall of the USSR. At the fall of this empire, a clear western orientation was shown by Czech political leaders. Originating from the dissident movement, these leaders were prisoners of the Soviet authoritarian regime and actively participated in bringing it down. Having succeeded, they distanced themselves from this past. In February 1990, just weeks after the Velvet revolution, Havel mentioned an “irreversible historical process“ before the American congress, a process which should lead Europe to democracy and independence. These words will be followed by actions, with the accession of the Czech Republic to NATO and the EU a couple of years later (1999 & 2004). The EU liberal economy and single market offered extremely interesting economic perspectives to a country like the Czech Republic seeking to rebuild itself from the ruins of communism. On the opposite, countries eastward of the Czech Republic and fellow former members of the USSR had very little to offer to the Czech economy. There were therefore more incentives for the country to look westward than eastward.

In the second period analyzed, after the Czech Republic entered the EU in 2004, there were very practical reasons (geographic and demographic) explaining the westward orientation of the Czech Republic. First of all, the country does not share borders with any of the countries which are now part of the Eastern Partnership. This did not help increase the interest of Czech society or political elite in this region’s issues unlike countries such as Poland, the Baltic States, Romania or Hungary. Furthermore, unlike some of its neighbors, the Czech Republic does not have any minority group from any of the six Eastern Partnership countries living within its borders, or any Czech minority group living within any of the six countries’ borders. These two elements certainly contribute to the lack of Czech interest in the region. This short timeline gives sense to the two priorities which have shaped Czech foreign policy during the post-1990 years which were the Euro-Atlantic integration and good neighbourly relation - a neighborhood understood restrictively as the Visegrad Group.

2: A political conjecture leading to more support to the region

Over the years, and precisely after the accession of the Czech Republic to the EU in 2004, this distanced position from the eastern neighborhood evolved towards more inclusive policy, leading in turn to the creation of the Eastern Partnership during the 2009 Czech presidency of the EU.

Links always existed between the Czech Republic and the eastern neighborhood due to the common Soviet past they share, allowing for a better understanding of the difficulties encountered by the region. After having completed its westernization process by entering the EU in 2004, the Czech foreign policy focused itself on two main concepts: “democratization” and “Europeanisation“ [1], two values which were at the heart of the revolutions taking place in the eastern neighborhood at the turn of the 2000s. It is in this perspective that a specific department of the Czech Foreign Affairs Ministry was created in 2004 [2], dedicated to the question of democratization and human rights in the East, echoing the aforementioned priorities. The renewed interest of the Czech Republic in the region also has economical roots. After integrating the EU single market, the country sought for new economic opportunities and perspectives. As a region rebuilding itself and evolving towards a market economy, the eastern European neighbor region was seen as a very valuable one for the short and long term future.

Particular political events of the international stage further confirmed this orientation. The growing threat of Vladimir Putin’s Russia certainly played an important role in this. The 2008 invasion of Georgian Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia regions was a violent reminder to Europe of the “near abroad“ vision Russia developed of its western neighborhood. The later effects of this war brought about changes in the priorities for the Czech Presidency that will move from the “3 E’s“ (Economy, Energy and Europe in the World) to “Europe without Barriers“, an outstretched hand to the countries of the nascent Eastern Partnership for more cooperation for the sake of the European continent’s peace. The same year, an EU program with another neighboring region of the EU in the south was created with the Union for the Mediterranean. Supported and pushed forward by the 2008 French Presidency of the EU, it institutionalized the already existing ENP allowing deeper and enhanced cooperation. This institutionalization opened the door to that of the ENP in the eastern region, which would soon be embodied by the Czech Republic during its presidency.

This context will also coincide with an important political agenda on a regional level for the Czech Republic in these years, with the country assuming both the Presidency of the Visegrád group (2007-2008) and the Presidency of the Council of the European Council (2009), on which we will concentrate now as it brought about the Eastern Partnership.

3: An active participation in the realization of the EaP

As the Czech Presidency unfolded, it was clear that the Eastern Partnership, which’s outlines had already been drawn prior to it (in the “ENP and Eastern Neighbourhood – Time to Act“ non-working document) was a priority. It was about to become concrete with the adoption of a political framework by the European council and its realization a couple of months later.

The first step for the realization of the Eastern Partnership was its recognition by the political instances of the European Union. This was a long process which started with the “ENP and Eastern Neighbourhood – Time to Act“ non-working document, that was first submitted to the V4 members before being submitted to a larger European audience to test the waters. This plan was accepted by the European Commission on the 3rd of December 2008 following a communication on the matter which promoted a Partnership mixing the Polish, Swedish and Czech visions. The Eastern Partnership was later officially established on the 7th of May 2009 during the Eastern Partnership Prague summit. Although this was a success for the Czech Republic, as host of the summit and as President of the Council of the European Union, everything did not go exactly as planned. A number of important leaders were indeed absent for this historic summit among which Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi, Gordon Brown, probably a sign of the lack of interest of Western Europe for the fate of the East. The problems did not stop here as Aleksander Lukashenko decided not to go to Prague over disagreements with the Czech government.

This did not stop the Czech Republic from playing its part in the active establishment of the Partnership, not satisfied with a simply institutional establishment of it. Over the past months and years, the Czech Republic has shown significant signs of support to the region, financially at first, with much more important financial aid provided to this neighborhood than to the southern one. Diplomatically the Czech Republic was also very present in the Transnistria-Moldova conflict resolution process, took an important part in the negotiations leading to the association agreement between the EU and Ukraine, played a central role in the TAIEX missions, technical missions aimed at supporting the public administrations of the countries concerned, and finally held talks with the Azerbaijani leader in Budapest in January 2009 over energetic safety of the EU, before holding talks with the Ukrainian president and the Polish President over the gas-dispute with Russia.

Although the Eastern Partnership Summit in Prague on the 7th of May 2009 was the pinnacle of this long campaign of support in favor of an enhanced cooperation with the Eastern Neighborhood of the EU, it is important to note, as this article wished to show, that there was deep work within the Czech political sphere to give more sense to this region and participate actively in the realization of the Partnership. It is interesting to reflect about this evolution in the context of the upcoming Czech Presidency of the EU (July 2022) and of the context it will take its place in. Once again the Eastern Partnership countries and Ukraine at its head will be at the heart of every European’s heart and at the heart of all of the Presidency’s policies.

Sources: KRAL, David. “The Czech Republic and the Eastern Partnership - From a by-product to a beloved child?“, in The Eastern Partnership in the context of the European Neighbourhood Policy and V4 Agenda, Visegrad Fund, pg. 5-17

KRATOCHVIL, Petr. TULMETS, Elsa. “La Politique Orientale e la République Tchèque et la Politique Européenne de Voisinage“, Revue d’Etudes Comparatives Est-Ouest, 2009, Vol. 1, N°40, pg. 71-98

URBANEK, Jiri. “Czech_Republic, EU Presidency and the project of “Eastern partneship““, Krakowskie Studia Mizdzynarodwe, pg. 279-288

WEISS, Tomas. “Projecting the Re-Discovered/ Czech Policy Towards Eastern Europe“, Perspectives, 2011, N°2, Vol. 19. , 2011 , pg. 27-44

PETER, Ketie. ROOD, Jan. GROMADZKI, Grzegorz. “The Eastern Partnership: Towards a New Era of Cooperation between the EU and its Eastern Neighbours?“, Clingendael Institute, The Hague, December 2009

ŠLOSARČÍK, Ivo. “Good, bad or boring? Three views on the Czech Presidency“, International Issues & Slovak Foreign Policy Affairs, Vol. 18, N°3, 2009 pg. 3 à 11

Footnotes

[1KRAL, David. “The Czech Republic and the Eastern Partnership - From a by-product to a beloved child?“, in The Eastern Partnership in the context of the European Neighbourhood Policy and V4 Agenda, Visegrad Fund, pg. 58

[2KRATOCHVIL, Petr. TULMETS, Elsa. “La Politique Orientale e la République Tchèque et la Politique Européenne de Voisinage“, Revue d’Etudes Comparatives Est-Ouest, 2009, Vol. 1, N°40, pg. 82

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