Interview of CZ Ambassador Jitka Latal Znamenackova
Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper) The Czech Presidency of the Council of the European Union is over its midterm. We went to talk with HE Ambassador Jitka Latal Znamenockova (JLZ)who is representing Czechia in the Political and Security Committee (PSC) to make an evaluation of what is already achieved and what is yet to come.
Halfway through the CZ presidency. How do you evaluate this first half and what can we still expect for the second half?
It was a really good first half that we just passed, with a lot of successes. If I should name some of these then I’d say of course in the first instance that we are maintaining the course of our support to Ukraine, be it in the military field or be it at other layers, economic, financial, etc. We worked with the European Commission (EC) and with the European External Action Service (EEAS) to push the files through. Definitely, our priority of supporting democracy and civil society is in front. We managed to replace Russia in the Human Rights Council of the UN (OHCHR)! It was quite a success in the summer and here in Brussels, we plan a lot of events in the upcoming last 2 months focused on human rights and on the support of civil society such as the dialogues of the Vaclav Havel Foundation with speakers on the Ministry level.
Then, of course, as we are facing disinformation and hybrid threats, we managed to get through the Council conclusions on Foreign Interference and Manipulation of Information (FIMI) and we are working right now on a hybrid toolbox and on country disinformation challenges. I also want to mention the success of last month in the approval of an EU mission training for Ukraine (EUMAM). We managed to get it through the Council. Sometimes it was a bit of a bumpy road. It’s done.
We are focusing on Eastern partnership and on Ukraine but also on the Western Balkan. On that front, we managed to have intergovernmental conferences organized just at the start of the CZ presidency in July, with North Macedonia and Albania and we are now very much focusing on enlargement conclusions. Charles Michel announced the summit of the Western Balkans on December 6. It will be in Tirana and here again, we are giving our full support. What we are trying to get is a really close attachment of the Western Balkans to the EU and a slow integration of sectoral policies. What I would like to stress is that we offered to Western Balkans countries to attend some informal ministerial meetings. Be it on the Transport, Telecom, and Energy Council or of the ministers of Interior and some other formations. This is quite successful and well-received by Western Balkan countries.
We are in almost daily contact with the embassies of these countries and we also managed to organize some special events for them here in Brussels. What I’d like to renew a bit is the trail with Ambassadors of the EU and of the Western Balkans. It was kind of lost in translation during the Covid. This will be another opportunity to discuss issues and especially alignment with CSSP and CSDP.
A troubled Caucasus region asks for our attention besides Ukraine ?
We were always close to our Armenian and Georgian friends. We were really one of those that encouraged them to get closer to the EU and so just to mention it was also to me personally quite a disappointment when we couldn’t have GATT association and develop a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with Armenia included in 2014 because it was with Ukraine but also Moldova and Georgia a candidate for DCFTA. Let’s say that for the CZ Republic working with the Eastern partnership as such has been essential always and especially there is a track record of CZ assistance there be it political, financial or mediation i would say. We do our best for the Caucasus, and for the time being, we support the mediation efforts made by Charles Michel and Macron as well. We agreed in the Council in October there will be monitoring missions sent to Armenian borders with Azerbaijan to oversee the situation. Again the CZ Republic put a real emphasis on these efforts.
You also did have, more surprisingly, an eye for Asia and the Indo-Pacific ? What are your links as Czechia with this region?
Yes, our focus is in the Pacific as well. We were asked in the beginning why a landlocked, quite distant country wanted to focus on the Indo-Pacific. The answer is quite obvious: because after the Russian aggression in Ukraine the security impact on the region was and is enormous and with Chinese dynamics in the region as well and here we feel very strongly we kind of have to work together with like-minded countries in the Region. That’s why we focused several events in Prague and here in Brussels on this region.
You would be surprised but we have a strong historical presence in the Indo-Pacific countries and I should start with naming India. The Czech -India relations go hugely back in time and there were close ties during the Communist times. Nowadays we are keeping the link and India is one of the countries with whom we are having a strategic dialogue on a bilateral level. So this is only one to name but of course, we have this with South Korea and Japan as well. There will be the EU- ASEAN summit in December. Just on the bilateral level we, as Czechia, are present in almost each and every country in the Pacific and we re-opened our Singapore Embassy, 2 years back now, during the Covid times.
Do you consider our military & defense Industry up to the task? What about specifically the Czech military industry?
Here are several points to flag. My country has indeed quite a history with arms producing or military production itself. It is back on track and some new companies right now are coming into the market and to emphasize that, I may mention that Czechia was among one of the first to send military support to Ukraine in quite large numbers.
What is on our Presidency plate in the area of defense and security? A lot. I already mentioned a military training mission for Ukraine. There is the European Peace facility (EPF) which actually wasn’t meant for support like that for Ukraine. Now we are just in front of the task of how to make the EPF sustainable financially. This is the task or effort for the CZ presidency in the upcoming 2 months. One really big task is how to replenish European stocks with military equipment and here we are discussing a DARPA* regulation which is one of the 2 instruments introduced by the Commission in the short run and the Czech presidency is sharing the group that is supposed to come up with the good solutions. Hopefully materially we will be able to finish the general approach on this in December if member states are constructive and we are able to come to a good compromise.
In this, I imagine, you are working together with Sweden as they will take over? What can we expect after their national elections?
We are indeed working closely with Sweden on the file because they are taking over. We hopefully finish the work in the Council by December and then it will be onto Sweden to direct the triologues talks. In a case you are taking up the presidency of the EU Council you are becoming an honest broker in the files. So you can not push your national position much. It will be the same for the next presidency.
You also had to work a lot on energy security?
Energy security was just discussed by our leaders and of course there are concrete steps to follow during the month that rests for the CZ presidency. I only wish to stress one effort we have done and that is to get rid of dependencies. Especially in terms of Russia and believe me, from our national perspective in CZ Republic, it is not so easy to get through this and to work on diversification. Of course it should have been done years ago but still, we have to work on that to get rid of dependencies in energy.
Am I optimistic? It will take time but there are several opportunities. For the CZ Republic it is important to get the connectivity and the infrastructure and when this is done I think it opens in terms of guarantees etc. lots of opportunities and we will have more on our pallet of possibilities on how to get our energy and how to supply our energy needs. In some of these we are looking for guarantees from the US but also from suppliers from the Middle East. We really are ready to diversify.
Czechia has also a long Industrial tradition, also in IT. How did this influence your policies?
It is really important to flag that the CZ IT has been strong from the very beginning and this on several layers, be it academic or be it on the level of companies. We really got huge numbers of small and medium companies who are experts on IT. If you look at students in universities in CZ Republic you would find a lot of them that are focused on IT and related technologies. We are working forward slowly and steadily on it and a lot of CZ companies that are present in the US are really working closely in the IT hubs in the USA.
Especially in the academic level and the bachelor level in universities there is a lot of collaboration. Among our priorities is cybersecurity. Some 10 years and even more back in time we realized that cybersecurity is essential for us as there have been a lot of cyberattacks on our infrastructure and IT connectivity. There was a need to respond. It started within universities and academia. A lot of new students to cybersecurity were hired and now we are, as Czechs, are more visible in this. On November 4&5 we have a high profile conference on cyber security, a tradition as it is now the fifth dealing with concerns th This year it is focused on value chains under the Presidency umbrella but just to mention cybersecurity is amongst the areas we are more visible in and that it is in our Presidency priorities.
What could you tell us about the DSA, DMA, EMFA…
Supporting this and countering disinformation is really among our priorities. We work closely with the cabinet of Commissioner Jerouva and with the EEAS. I must say the EEAS stratcom team is really getting higher and higher value, even for the member states because they are working on some important files and producing actually really great products like ‘EU versus disinfo’. Nationally we are trying to build up to higher floors to counter disinformation. Recently there was a team set up at our governmental chapter for countering disinformation. My ministry got the job to set up the unit and they are actually working in a governmental triangle, the Ministry of Interior Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We want to make the CZ Republic more visible at this level because we think we can offer some new solutions. We have a meeting here on media and civil society and journalism in cooperation with the US and the EC as well as several other initiatives
Two more points on propaganda or hate speech. We saw some good practice in imposing restrictive measures in malign activities or hate speech and propaganda in Rusland in the current situation of their aggression towards Ukraine and we really think that in terms of propaganda we shouldn’t shy away from imposing costs. For us it is no brainer if there should come more restrictive measures to look into this area.
Second, there is the outreach to African and Asian countries, to South America: we need to better explain and probably also to make better offers in what EU can assist them and what is our narrative to be able to counter the Russian narrative which is very quickly spreading around.
Finally, your Presidency motto is : Rethink, Repower Europe!
I think that to have a Vaclav Havel moto for our presidency was quite obvious. Because still in the diplomatic political environment he had a special way of designing policies which is a bit of CZ specialty and of course there was his passion for human rights, civil society support and support for democracy. This is really dear to our hearts and we wanted to base our presidency on these values.
For this 3, rethink, rebuild , repower I think it is really getting more and more concrete shapes. We really didn’t want to have a big bang in the EU, we just wanted to sit and to think more about some files and to repower and sometimes adjust or both some areas in the EU and here I have to again mention the replenishing of our military stocks and our military support to Ukraine. I know it is not exactly the vein in which Vaclav Havel worked. He was quite a pacifist but now we are facing an immediate threat and we have to deal with it.
How to connect best with Havels ideas?
Definitely the speech of his in the EP and his speech before the American Congress, his speech in Aachen when he received the Karlspreis and if you want to dig a bit deeper then I can advise his theater plays and I have to say I love all of them! One needs to know a bit of CZ soul to be able to laugh and to really get the sense of his humor but it’s incomparably rich.