Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) After thirteen years, this was the second Presidency of the Czech Republic in the Council of the EU. In 2009, the overall impression of the Czech Republic’s Presidency was, to say the least, strongly contradictory. Therefore, one of the questions surrounding this year’s Presidency was whether the Czech Republic would manage to repair its reputation.
Despite the good organization and topics remaining relevant even today (the three “E”: economy, energy, Europe in the world), the reputation of the Czech Republic suffered irreparable damage due to the collapse of the government amid the Presidency. It was necessary to wait 13 long years for Czechia to finally get a chance to improve its tarnished reputation.
The time full of challenges
The Czech Republic set the bar very high compared to most previously presiding countries. From the very beginning, the Presidency was full of challenges. The EU has barely recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has had to deal with the consequences of the war in Ukraine immediately. In addition, it was impossible to ignore other problems, such as climate change.
Let’s start with the conflict in Ukraine. The Czech government, together with the majority of the public, has acted absolutely brilliantly from the very beginning when it comes to helping the war-torn country. Firstly, by delivering military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, but also by accepting several hundred thousand refugees. Czechia, together with other Central European countries, especially Poland, set an example for the entire Europe with their refugee crisis approach even before the start of the Presidency in July!
A lot has been done to solve related problems, especially those affecting the population of EU member states. The already mentioned energy sector needed the most urgent response. Several summits have been convened in response to the energy crisis. It was possible to find an agreement on joint gas purchases and solidarity mechanisms in the event of a shortage. The reaction was swift, and Europe, at least for this winter, does not have to worry about having a gas shortage.
In December, the Presidency also managed to end the Hungarian veto on approving the aid to Ukraine worth 18 billion euros. In the end, Hungary backed down from the veto in exchange for releasing more money than initially planned from European funds. A deal was also reached on corporate taxes, where, on the other hand, there was a threat of opposition from Poland.
Furthermore, additional packages of sanctions against Russia were approved. The ambassadors of the individual EU countries managed to push through the latest 9th package, sanctioning the export of engines for drones and items that Russia could use for military purposes (e.g., electronics and IT components).
The Czech Republic also managed what several presidencies have already gnashed their teeth on, an advance in migration and asylum reform. A “flexible solidarity” plan was presented, introducing other forms of assistance than the relocation of migrants. In the field of asylum reform, it was possible to achieve a shift forward, and progress exceeded initial expectations.
Croatia in Schengen
The progress achieved by the EU under the Czech Presidency in the Western Balkans was also praised. The December expansion of the Schengen Area to include Croatia, which was one of the priorities of the Czech Presidency, was undoubtedly a success. The fact that Romania and Bulgaria, unfortunately, were not included in the expansion of the Schengen Area should not diminish this achievement. The governments of the EU member states also agreed in December to abolish the visa requirement for Kosovo, the last country in the Western Balkans that still did not have a visa-free regime for travel to the EU.
It was also possible to frame the conditions for the further enlargement of the EU. The war in Ukraine gave the impetus to the expansion of the EU further east. However, it was definitely not just Ukraine that was discussed. In December, the candidate country status for Bosnia and Herzegovina was finally confirmed, which can be considered another success in the Western Balkans. It is extremely positive that other countries are still interested in EU membership which just proves that it remains a prestigious matter.
It is also impossible not to mention here that the first summit of the European Political Community took place at the beginning of October in Prague and had a positive response also outside the EU. Many informal negotiations that took place there, helped to strengthen relations between feuding countries. Diplomacy can be a very powerful weapon. Thanks to the Prague summit, Hungary supported the membership of Sweden and Finland in NATO.
Those were just a few moments, but the Czech Presidency seems to be remembered as successful. During Presidency, it was possible to react quickly to the war events in Ukraine. A consensus was found on the way forward in the critical area of energy which was extremely important for the lives of Europeans. Furthermore, the expansion of the Schengen area was approved, and the ground has been layed for further expansion.
Although the Presidency came at a difficult time, a large part of its objectives was achieved. Czechia managed it excellently on the second attempt, and a huge thank you goes to everyone who participated.