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The Czech Republic's EU presidency deepened the bloc's relations with eastern EuropeImage: AP/ DW Montage

EU presidency

June 30, 2009

The Czech presidency of the European Union was realistic rather than visionary and lacked commitment to development issues, argues guest commentator Ondrej Horky from the Institute of International Relations in Prague.


After the hyperactive and much applauded French presidency of the EU in the second half of 2008, many had cast serious doubts about the ability of its Czech successor to represent the union at home and abroad in the time of global financial and economic crisis. The Czech government, critics said, would be hampered by the pending ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and the stubborn euro-skepticism of President Vaclav Klaus.

The fall of the Czech government in late March 2009 seemed to seal the fate of the country's EU-presidency. The failure to provide stable leadership for 500 million EU citizens has somehow obscured its capacity to cope with unexpected events and to promote the "three E" priorities of the original program: economy, energy and the EU in the world, including global development.

E for Eastern Europe

A valve alone the Russian gas pipeline
Getting gas back to freezing Europe was a top priority in the January negotiationsImage: AP

Throughout the course of the presidency, the third "E" came to stand for eastern Europe, a priority of the Czech Republic's foreign policy. The January gas crisis strongly affected many of the EU's eastern members and the presidency mediated an agreement between Russia and Ukraine. Later it attempted to resuscitate the Nabucco gas pipeline. Both interventions may be seen as moderately successful.

The Eastern Partnership, concluded in May to deepen the relations between the EU and six of its Eastern neighbors, also serves as a counterbalance to the Union for the Mediterranean, launched under the French presidency. In other regions of the world, however, the presidency was less active and visible. In the case of the conflict between Israel and Gaza, the Czech government mistook its pro-Israeli attitude for the EU position, which challenged its legitimacy in negotiating the end of the war.

Mitigated success of the Czech development initiatives

Czech Republic's Foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg
Development policy was not a top priority for Foreign Minister Karel SchwarzenbergImage: AP

Bluntly put, development of the South is an insignificant issue for the Czech government. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is aware of the importance of development issues for the EU and it seeks to promote its territorial priorities and transition experience at the EU level. European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel was eventually "impressed by the high level of ambition" of the presidency program.

Council conclusions have confirmed the success of the main priority: Access to sustainable sources of energy at local level in developing countries. The Czech presidency found a consensus on the need to redirect a part of the large infrastructure projects to local and off-grid pro-poor solutions.

The second initiative, support of democratic governance, reflects the Czech conviction that economic development goes hand in hand with democratization. However, the support of the Governance Initiative concerns only African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. The presidency has underestimated the compartmentalization of the European Commission and failed in mainstreaming its third priority- the eastern dimension within the EU development policy.

Lack of real commitment to development

But issues that are more urgent for the EU development policy were absent from the presidency program. Although the council "strongly reaffirmed its commitment to achieve its official development assistance targets," the preceding Czech position was much less eager. But commitment does not mean delivery: most EU countries were already off-track to meet the targets before the finance crisis.

Aid effectiveness and coordination was yet another non-issue. However, the Czech support of a Finnish initiative to include development cooperation in the trans-Atlantic dialogue may benefit from the openness of US President Obama's administration and help to reinforce the EU's coordination with the second biggest world donor in the long run.

Melting ice in Antarctica
The Czech presidency pushed forward preparations for the December climate summitImage: AP

Crucial policy coherence issues were not put on the agenda either. On one hand, the Czechs hailed a resolution of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development for not engaging the EU in cutting agricultural subsidies that were harmful to the producers from the South. On the other hand, the Czech presidency successfully negotiated with major actors from the North and South in preparing the forthcoming Copenhagen summit on climate change. Even so, the prospects for an efficient post-Kyoto agreement are not positive.

Alongside climate change, the global finance and economic crisis remains the most urgent challenge for both North and South. If the Czech government has underestimated its effects at home, it has done so with respect to developing countries as well. One reason may be an excessive belief in markets based on the positive experience of the economic transition: the presidency strived for pushing the Doha Development Round and the Economic Partnership Agreements further without success.

More realism than magic

As far as the promotion of national priorities is concerned, the Czech presidency was more or less successful: it managed to mainstream the eastern dimension in the EU external relations, but not in the EU's development policy. According to Czech diplomats, the day-to-day administration of the Council in the EU development policy and EU-Africa relations was a pleasant surprise for other member states. However, the presidency did not manage to hide the low global awareness among the Czech political elite and it failed in delivering a strong message on the crisis.

Ondrej Horky
Ondrej Horky hopes EU development policy will be strengthenedImage: Ondrej Horky

Hopefully, the Lisbon Treaty will put an end to the system of rotating presidencies and reduce the risk of weak leadership and unbalanced expertise. The Czech presidency succeeded in facilitating its final adoption at the recent European Council, especially with regards to the Irish case. This last step will probably help to strengthen the EU external and development policy in the future and the Czech presidency will not be remembered as a nightmare. With the media circus and awkward declarations put aside, the Czech EU presidency was rather a case of realism than one of magic.

Author: Ondrej Horky (ara)

Editor: Sean Sinico

Ondrej Horky is a research fellow specializing on development policy at the Institute of International Relations, Prague (IIR).

The Institute of International Relations (IIR) is an independent research organization. It conducts scholarly research, as well as analytical activities concerning international relations and Czech foreign and security policy. The IIR works with the German Development Institute (Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik).

Based in Bonn, the German institute draws together the knowledge of development research available worldwide, dedicating its work to key issues facing the future of development policy. It consults on the basis of independent research findings in Germany and worldwide and deals with current issues in cooperation between industrial and developing countries.

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