From July 2022, Europe will be led by two former university rectors: Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala is a political scientist who served as rector of the Masaryk University in Brno from 2004 and 2011. His friend, musicologist Mikulas Bek, ran the institution from 2011 to 2019, and today serves as the Czech Republic's minister of European affairs. Under the leadership of both men, the Masaryk University became one of the most popular institutes of higher learning in the world, attaining a favorability among students to rival universities in Berlin or Vienna.
Fiala and Bek now want to repeat their success as rectors of their country's second-largest university in the EU by presenting the Czech Republic as part of Western Europe when it takes the Council of the European Union's rotating presidency on July 1, 2022 — and not as part of eastern Europe.
"I would be very pleased if our EU presidency led to our country being perceived not as a country that seeks to catch up to the West, but as an EU member state with no ifs, ands, or buts," Mikulas Bek told DW. "To do so, it is enough to exercise the role of presiding country with professionalism."
Whether or not the Czech Republic is perceived as a "normal" EU country like Denmark or Sweden will depend on little things like punctuality at EU negotiations, he said. Such countries did not dominate the EU debate stage like France or Germany, he said, but rather, they knew what it takes to be a good moderator.
Ukraine top of the list
Prague is well aware that its performance presiding over the EU Council will be greatly influenced by Russia's aggression toward Ukraine and its effect on the the EU and the world.
"It is not as if Ukraine is pushing all other issues off the table, but rather that we now have a giant new problem," says Bek. After Poland, the Czech Republic is probably the EU country most strongly supporting Kyiv. It is delivering weapons, including tanks and helicopters, and has taken in 350,000 Ukrainian refugees.
Looking forward to winter, the Czech EU minister says mastering the energy crisis brought about by Russia will be a focal point. "That is a central task," says Bek, "one that will determine EU credibility. This will be a bigger test for the EU than dealing with the coronavirus pandemic." It is critical that the EU prepare sufficient capacity for liquid gas terminals and transport routes, he adds.
Such concerns correspond with the priorities that Prime Minister Petr Fiala outlined for the Czech rotating presidency during a press conference in Prague in mid-June. They included: mastering the refugee crisis and the reconstruction of Ukraine after the war; energy security; strengthening Europe's defense capabilities and cyber security; and enhancing the strategic resilience of Europe's economy and democratic institutions. The motto of the Czech Republic's EU Council presidency is a quote from the country's former president, Vaclav Havel — "Europe as a task."
"Europe, and with it the entire world, finds itself in a moment of profound transformation. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shaken many of our certainties," as Fiala told reporters, while explaining that Europe must work toward creating a new security architecture. The Czech Republic also understands that its task in presiding over the EU is not defined by pushing its own interests, he said: "The task of the Czech presidency will, above all, be to achieve consensus in individual areas and attain all-important European unity."
Mega-summit in Prague
Although the French presidency was already able to successfully extend membership candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova at the EU summit in June 2022, the question of EU expansion and cooperation with the bloc's neighbors will also be the focus of the most important informal summit scheduled during the Czech Republic's Council presidency.
The event will take place in Prague in October 2022, and be the largest event of its kind, because not only EU member states are to take part but other European countries as well, "from Iceland to Ukraine, regardless of whether they are EU members or not," announced Fiala on his Facebook page. "It is a challenge for us, but one that we'll master."
With the event, the Czech Republic can indirectly establish a link to its last Council presidency in 2009, when the so-called Eastern Partnership between six post-Soviet states (Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) and the EU was launched at a similar Prague summit.
According to observers, the key to success for the Czech Republic's turn at the helm will be whether it can continue to support Ukraine, ensure that it does not lose the war to Russia, and manage the repercussions of Russian aggression. Beyond that, the Czech Republic will have to moderate debate around advancing legislative steps for the climate plan Fit for 55.
"It will be enough if we are able to achieve our fundamental aims — help Ukraine, master the refugee crisis, and solve the energy crisis," as Helena Truchla, lead analyst at the think tank Czech Interests in the EU, told DW.
However, just as the Czech Republic prepares to take over the Council presidency, its government is being rocked by a corruption scandal at Prague City Hall in which members of STAN, the second-largest member in the country's current five-party ruling coalition, have been caught up. That, too, is reminiscent of 2009, when the government of Mirek Topolanek was toppled in the middle of the country's Council presidency.
In an attempt to defuse the situation, Education Minister and STAN Deputy Party Chairman Petr Gazdik immediately stepped down, even though he said he had nothing to do with the scandal. "I don't want to endanger the government or the coalition on the eve of the EU Council presidency," said Gazdik of his resignation. In 2009, Prime Minister Topolanek had no parliamentary majority — that is different today. This time around, the Czech Republic's ruling coalition enjoys a solid majority of 108 of the body's 200 seats.
This article was translated from German by Jon Shelton.