October 26, 2010

Where is the Czech Republic's Mr EU?

22.10.2010 @ 09:05 CET

EUOBSERVER / COMMENT Several months have passed since the Czechs elected their new government. After a prolonged hiatus of unstable coalitions, the country appears to many outside to finally boast a government with a substantial enough majority in the parliament to push through the agenda it pleases.

Vaclav Klaus could become the Czech Republic's Mr EU by default (Photo: EUobserver.com)

But looking under the hood, we see that despite a string of ambitious goals, the government is stuck in internal squabbles that are watering down its reform agenda. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of foreign policy where the government lacks any semblance of resolve and long-term vision. Most notably, there is a complete absence of any substantial debate on the future course of Czech EU Policy. Should this policy of woeful neglect continue, the standing of the Czech Republic in the EU will be further undermined.
The current Czech government is a strange amalgam of two conservative parties (ODS and TOP09) and a centre-left party (VV) whose political platform smacks of outright populism. In spite of its proclamations to the contrary, the conservative ODS, who wields the strongest influence in the coalition, exhibits a strange love-hate relationship with the EU. After all, its founding father was none other one of the continent's most famous eurosceptics, President Vaclav Klaus. Although the other two coalition members speak positively of the country's EU membership, they have by and large failed to engage the government in any serious EU debate.

A good case in point is the ongoing dispute inside the coalition over whether the government should have a senior official in charge of EU affairs. Driven by a slash-and-burn logic to reduce the country's deficit, the government first promised to scrap the position of a Mr EU, only later to start dragging its feet. Up until the last elections, EU policies were co-ordinated by a deputy prime minister for EU affairs. However, at the moment, the two conservative parties are at loggerheads over Mr EU: the former wants to nominate its own person to the job while the latter opposes it, claiming it would violate previous agreement to trim the country's bureaucracy. What is really behind this, however, is not an ideological debate over the place of the Czech Republic within the EU but the raging power struggle inside the coalition between the two parties. The ODS wants to shore up its influence in the government while TOP09, whose leader is foreign minister, does not want its coalition partner to strengthen its position. That said, it seems to be completely lost on the government that there is a genuine need to put in motion a long-term EU strategy to include different ministers and government agencies. Yet the debate is missing and EU policy has become hostage to the vagaries of party bosses.

As mentioned before, there is no long-term vision as to what goals Czech EU policy should pursue. Similarly, the government has not bothered to engage the opposition so far. Even informal meetings to discuss EU affairs take place without opposition representatives. This by no means helps prepare ground for crafting a comprehensive EU policy.

The real danger is two-fold: First, the Czech Republic will be confined to the margins of EU politics should the government decide to focus on domestic issues and ignore foreign policy while finding itself mired in inter-government infighting. Secondly and worse still, such a withdrawal will open the door for Czech President Klaus, who is more than keen to become the sole voice for the Czech Republic in the EU, to become our de facto Mr EU.

The government needs to recognize that not only domestic issues require its immediate attention. The coalition leaders should agree to establish some sort of coordination mechanism for EU policies headed by a senior government official. Ideally, the next Mr. EU should not be an active member of the three coalition members but have enough political weight to moderate conflicting interests inside the government. For that, the government can rely on support from the opposition Social Democrats who are in favour of a more effective EU policy. Also, it is up to both government parties and opposition to once and for all recognise that EU policy offers a key opportunity to forge a culture of bipartisanship.

A greater involvement of the opposition in decision-making with regard to the EU is a must.

Jakub Kulhanek is head of the East European Programme at the Association for International Affairs in the Czech Republic and currently with the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham (UK).