The Czech Republic takes over the European Union presidency on Jan. 1 from current holder France. Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg spoke with DW about his country's intentions for its EU presidency.
The Czech Republic will lead the EU starting in 2009
Deutsche Welle: In a few weeks, the Czech Republic will take over the EU presidency. What are the goals you've set for the next six months?
Karel Schwarzenberg: The goals that we originally set are already known: on the one hand, supporting the development of the eastern "neighborhood;" secondly, driving forward the integration process in the western Balkans; and thirdly, a Europe without barriers. A liberal Europe, a Europe that doesn't close itself off, but meets all challenges.
Now, it could be as with several other presidencies, that our presidency will be dependent on other things. The financial crisis is no longer just on the horizon, it's being felt full-on in Europe. I'm afraid that this will absorb a great deal of our presidency and that will be something we'll really have to deal with. There are also numerous foreign policy problems that threaten us on the horizon.
To put it simply, you can set yourself a lot of goals at the start of a presidency, but life can take you in a different direction. I don't think the French presidency would have predicted that their main tasks would involve handling the conflict in the Caucasus and the beginning of the economic crisis.
I'd like to come back to these topics individually. But I'm also interested in the future of the Lisbon reform treaty. The Czech Republic is one of two countries that has not approved it.
Schwarzenberg said the financial crisis will remain a major focus
God knows that's true. That's been delayed now, firstly because of the proceedings at the Constitutional Court, and arguments in parliament. But I'm assuming it will happen within the next six weeks.
The Czech President Vaclav Klaus is a decided opponent to the reform treaty, and he's also said the EU presidency is a totally unimportant thing. hhow do you live, how do you work with a president that is so disrespectful toward the European Union?
Well look, I don't live with him. The president knows that I have different opinions to him, and I know that about him. We've had almost two years now to get used to this situation. Foreign policy is dictated by the government, not by the president. You can't choose the kind of relationship you have with a head of state, it's there and you have to live with it.
In France, there's been public speculation about whether the Czech Republic is even in a position to lead the European Union in this very critical time. Did it hurt you to hear what was coming from the French president's circle?
No, not in the least. I'm not that easily hurt. I've been through a lot in my life, I've seen a lot. We'll see if such statements are still being made by the end of our presidency. I'm well aware that many smaller countries have had to deal with similar sentiments at the start of their presidencies. I think it's just part of the political banter that comes with a presidency and I don't take it that seriously.
You yourself once referred to French President Nicolas Sarkozy with much admiration as the "spirit of restlessness in politics." How satisfied are you with the restlessness that France has brought to the EU in its six-month presidency?
Sarkozy gets kudos for his handling of the financial crisis
I think, all in all, we should be very grateful to the French president. There were single steps, isolated remarks that I wasn't particularly thrilled about. But I think we have to say that the Sarkozy's energetic handling of the crisis in the Caucasus is something Europe can be very thankful for, as were his efforts to do something about the economic crisis. We'll have to see if the measures he took were the right ones. That's beyond my economic expertise, but in any case, it was a presidency that took action.
The global economic crisis wasn't foreseeable when France took over. You're inheriting this problem now. What are your expectations? How bad do you think this crisis will get?
I think it's something we have to take very, very seriously. That doesn't mean -- and I would like to emphasize this -- that we should start to panic. Given the situation, that would be the worst thing we could do. The tried and trusted rules of economics shouldn't be thrown overboard in a moment of panic.
But we should be aware that emergency measures are sometimes needed. And if I were to break my leg today, I would have to accept that I would have to wear a cast for a while. But we all know that if you wear a cast for too long, the muscles start to weaken to the point that it could cause lasting damage. So, like I said, all these emergency measures and regulations should be used very carefully. They should not be used permanently, and only goal-oriented measures should be used to combat the crisis.
An important matter for the EU is always its relations with its eastern neighbors. Should countries such as Moldova or Ukraine be introduced as members of the EU?
The Lisbon Treaty remains a sticking point
This will take very, very long, I fear, very long. But I believe it is in our greatest interests that this prospect stays alive. It is an engine for reform, real motivation. Whether it concerns the western European states or also these states, this prospect is the strongest motivation to push the necessary reforms.
And these reforms are in our greatest interests. In discussions we forget over and over again that reaching out to these countries is not a charitable activity, exclusively to the advantage of these states, but that we would be pre-empting difficulties we will inevitably have.
What role should Russia play in this concept? Is it only a strategic energy supplier or is Moscow also a part of this idea of political partnership?
Russia is and will remain a world in itself, with which we should search for a healthy, fair relationship. What does not simplify things is that certain developments in Russia, even a return to an authoritarian system, worry us. We are anxious about certain revisionist statements which are somewhat unsettling.
But this changes nothing about the fact that not only as an energy supplier, but also as a security discussion partner in countless elements of policy and international politics, Russia is a much-needed partner with whom we should have dialog and lead. But not under all conditions, this of course is obvious. We must still protect our own principles. But dialog with Russia is always useful and necessary.