The Upcoming Czech Presidency of Council of the EU and Czech political unity

, by Jules Bigot

The Upcoming Czech Presidency of Council of the EU and Czech political unity
The juggling act of the presidency of the Council of the EU. Illustration: Téo Manisier

While the eyes of all observers are turned towards France for the start of its presidency of the Council of the EU, it is interesting to take a look at the political setting of the country which will assume the next presidency: the Czech Republic. Legislative elections were held in October 2021, which saw the victory of the centre right coalition, SPOLU. The Czech Republic being a parliamentary system, SPOLU had to find partners to form a majority capable of governing. They found these in the Pirati-STAN coalition, which arrived third in the elections, just behind former Prime minister Babiš’s party, ANO. Regrouping 5 parties, ODS, KDS-CSL, TOP-09, the Pirate Party and STAN, the newly named government is quite heterogeneous politically, but benefits from a conformable majority of 108 seats out of 200 in Parliament. This diversity serves the government for now, but it could soon become a thorn in its foot, as we will see here.

A fragile coalition unity around European policy

According to researcher Adriaan Schout [1], the presidency of the EU is like a juggling act made up of three balls: political leadership of the EU, which requires agenda setting of the different Councils; mediation of negotiations; and the representation of national interests. On some topics, this agenda setting role might be difficult to assume for the Czech Republic.

The first topic which could be problematic is nuclear energy. A very controversial topic in Europe today, nuclear energy is also subject to debate in the government. SPOLU is very much in favour of a nuclear driven energetic mix alongside renewable energy, pleading for the construction of a new powerplant. On the other hand, the Pirates, members of the nuclear-critic Greens/EFA in the European parliament are more reserved, setting conditions on the construction of a new power plant and advocating for research on greener ways of producing energy. The Pirates program recommends increased investment in energy storage facilities, with the perspective of turning the Czech Republic into the “battery of Europe’’. This currently mild division could develop as the European debate on nuclear energy unfolds.

Foreign policy could also be a field of opposition between the coalition partners. The government is indeed as divided as the European Council on the topic of Israel. The Pirates, and their foreign minister Lipavsky, renowned critics of the government of Israel, hold the minority position in the government, against the very pro-Israel ODS, which even mention the Jewish state in its political program. In the event of a new surge of violence in the region during the presidency, we could see the Czech government struggling to set its position and thus that of the EU.

Finally, what could be the biggest problem for the Czech presidency, is the diversity of positions of its government on European integration. The divisions here are not hidden. In an interview dating from November 2021, Mikuláš Bek, who became Minister for European affairs, revealed his disagreements with Petr Fiala on the subject, plainly stating that he was more optimistic than his Prime minister. But the divisions seem deeper. On the one hand we have members of the coalition who believe in further integration, and are opposed to a two speed Europe (the idea that different parts of the EU should integrate at different times depending on the political context of each country). This political stream, embodied by Mikuláš Bek, includes the Pirates, who advocate for the suppression of unanimity in the Council and TOP09, who are pushing for the adoption of the Euro in the Czech Republic. The other political stream in the government is embodied by Prime minister Fiala and ODS, party of the renowned Euro-sceptic Vaclav Klaus. Member of the sovereignist ECR in the European parliament, they believe in a European community of states rather than in a Union and advocate for a multi-speed Europe, that should be doing “less, but better“.

Although this last rift seems hard to solve, one can only hope that the governing coalition will manage to keep its unity and overcome all of its disagreements during the presidency while keeping a certain level of political ambition

The spectrum of the 2009 presidency

In addition to paying attention to its political unity, the government will have to make sure that this unity is translated in the House of Deputies if one wants to avoid a 2009-Czech-presidency scenario. At the time, the government fell during the EU presidency after the opposition, which had seen its ranks strengthened by members of the majority, voted a no-confidence motion against the government.

This risk still exists for the new government which will have to be careful of the political trends going-on in Parliament. In this regard, communication between the different representatives of political parties in the government and their colleagues in Parliament will be key to avoid any defections in the ranks of an opposition structured around ANO and SPD - who will be eyeing for any opportunity to bring down the government. In a recent interview, Mikuláš Bek mentioned the possibility of a “truce-deal“ with the opposition for the presidency period. However, it remains uncertain whether such a deal is possible with Babiš.

The other aspect that the government will have to be careful of is its relationship with President Zeman. During the 2009 Czech presidency of the EU, tensions existed between the President and the Prime minister which contributed to the fall of the government, as Mirek Topolánek - who assumed the office at the time - recalls in an interview. The President of the time, Vaclav Klaus, wanted a bigger share of participation in the presidency, a claim also made by President Zeman today. Before his departure, former Prime minister Babiš promised Zeman a European summit in Prague where he would participate and which would be the climax of his 10 years of presidency. Things, however, did not go as planned with Babiš losing the election and the new government being opposed to this proposition. A situation which could create tension between the Castle and the Straka Academy. The government will therefore have to be very careful in its approach of this question. Too much importance given to the President could, in the words of Luboš Palata, ruin the Czech presidency, while too little could see another constitutional battle unfold, at the expense both of the Czech presidency, and politically of the government.

During its presidency of the EU, the Czech government will therefore have to juggle both with Adriaan Schout’s previously described “EU presidency balls", but also with the three other balls described here: which are government unity, Parliament unity, and union with the President. This may prove to be not such an easy exercise.

1. SCHOUT, Adriaan. “The Presidency as Juggler. Managing Conflicting Expectations “, EIPASCOPE, 1998

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