David Král is the director of the EU policy programme at the Europeum Institute for European Policy in Prague. He also lectures at the Department of European Studies, part of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Czech capital's Charles University.
The Czech Presidency takes over from France in January, but the government has not yet decided whether the Lisbon Treaty conforms to the national constitution. Could the Czechs start their presidency without having ratified the treaty?
The ratification indeed is complicated. But the ball is not in the camp of the government. The government, led by the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), negotiated the treaty and the prime minister cannot afford not to stand behind it.
The problem seems to be in the upper chamber of parliament, where senators from the ODS seem to have a more lukewarm approach to the treaty, claiming that without it, it will not be the end of the world. Their point has also been reinforced by the Irish 'no'.
The challenge for Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek is now to have the ODS senators united behind him. Returning to your question, if the Czech Republic has not ratified by January 1, this would put us in a very unfortunate position.
I'm still convinced the government is determined to push it through, even if it is seen by some as a necessary evil. There was speculation about possible trade-offs with the missile defence treaty, which most of the ruling party's parliamentarians support, but the opposition is against.
[It should be ratified] for the sake of the priorities of the Czech Presidency as there are a lot of issues where the Lisbon Treaty would actually work in their favour, for example on energy security and enlargement. The government is very much pushing for enlargement to the Western Balkans, Croatia is very high on the agenda, but [French President] Sarkozy made it clear there is no way to continue with enlargement without the Lisbon Treaty.
What will be the priorities of the Czech Presidency?
The priorities have been set and reviewed periodically. Now it's more or less clear that the institutional innovations will not be part of them, but the other priorities are quite clear, the overarching one being the motto 'Europe without barriers'.
The government is determined to push for more liberalisation, including on internal market, energy security and budgetary issues (the CAP mid-term review, which already started under the French Presidency, and the expenditure structure of the budget post-2013).
Then there is the foreign policy area, where transatlantic relations will feature highly. The government will be consistent with its transatlantic image, particularly since there will be a new US president.
Then there is enlargement and relations with Eastern Europe, which could turn into the most controversial issue, especially in the light of recent developments and given the fact that the government is quite anti-Russian.
Do you expect trade-offs, like the Czech Republic insisting on obtaining the position of energy security chief in exchange for lifting obstacles to the Lisbon Treaty's ratification?
It would be possible. I don't know about this position exactly, but I think it is very much in the thinking of the present government to bargain and have different trade-offs.
Recently, former president Vaclav Havel explained that the Czechs were not as eurosceptic as people on the outside think. He even said current president Vaclav Klaus is not much of a eurosceptic, but that instead he rather likes to provoke. As a Czech, do you agree?
Vaclav Klaus is a category of his own. Even though he was re-elected just very recently and the ODS has been pushing for his re-election very strongly, now they may be starting to regret it. Klaus is not aligning with the government's positions and the most recent example was on Russia, where the government was in favour of taking a very harsh stance against Moscow, while Klaus put the blame on Georgia. Klaus is a non-conformist in international relations generally. For me, it is quite strange to see the position of Klaus interpreted in the international media as the position of the Czech Republic.
What is Klaus's position in terms of division of power?
The reins of power are definitely with the government and the prime minister, although the Czech Constitution is not very clear on the divisions of power and it is often the subject of interpretation. But the role of the president is more ceremonial and the government is in charge of foreign policy and European policy for that matter. That's why the things Klaus say on these subjects can be attributed to him as personal views.
Czechs seem to be tempted by ambiguities. In a TV advertisement, the symbol of the Czech Presidency was a sugar cube. Apparently this has a double meaning in Czech…
I personally learned on the occasion of this advert that the sugar cube was a Czech invention, and indeed it was the intention of the government to promote this.
And then the slogan, which sounds like "We'll make it sweet for Europe" in English, is a paraphrase of a famous statement from Klaus who said, when our country's accession was finally settled, that he was afraid that the Czech Republic might dissolve into the EU like a cube of sugar into coffee or tea.
And I think the government took it up in order to say "yes, we might dissolve, but in the end it's the sugar that influences the final product". And maybe it makes the whole thing better, gives it some more taste…
Also, in Czech, when you say you are going to make it sweet to somebody, it might also mean you may make their life more difficult. So, maybe the government wants to convey the message that they will not be too conformist with their presidency, that they will do things their own way.
But let's keep in mind that the whole campaign is only targeted at the Czech audience. The primary motive is, as I see it, to have the Czech audience interested in this presidency. Recent polls show that Czechs are not really aware that we will have an EU presidency and what this entails.
European elections will also take place towards the end of the Czech Presidency, meaning that the current Parliament will be more or less in recess during the second part of the Czechs' mandate. Could it be that the Czechs find themselves with a rather empty agenda, especially compared to the French Presidency?
Having a presidency after France is never an easy task. Talking to people from the government, I have the feeling that they just want to somehow survive it, to manage the technical side of it. But then, on the other hand, you never know. A crisis like the one in Georgia might happen during the Czech Presidency, Russia will still be on the table.
However, there are a few highlights where the government is working very hard, like the EU-US summit, where the Czech Republic feels quite strong, because of our very good relations with the United States. This will also be the first summit with the new US President, and I am sure they want to give a new start to transatlantic relations. But the EU-Russia summit, which will also be under the Czech Presidency, will be very difficult.
Analysts said the EU was lucky to have France at the helm during the Georgian crisis. They referred in particular to what might have happened if it was the Czech Republic holding the EU Presidency. Maybe Russia would even refuse to talk to the Czech leaders?
I very much agree, but that has been the Russian style for years - talking to the big guys and neglecting the others. I agree, it's better for big countries to hold the EU Presidency in difficult times.
On energy security, what does the Czech Presidency hope to achieve?
One of the last messages from Prague was that they are very determined to push very strongly for Nabucco [the gas pipeline project]. The other element is that we had quite a bitter experience in the summer. After we signed the missile defence treaty, the Russians closed the taps, but we managed somehow to recuperate that very quickly, via some alternative supplies from Trieste. For the Czech government, I know that they will press for more solidarity within Europe in similar situations.
Your country also seems to attach importance to the fifth anniversary of the 2004 enlargement, to be celebrated on 1 May 2009 under the Czech Presidency. Is there anything specific planned?
Definitely, it is very important symbolically. The government would like to portray the enlargement as a success. But also it may have practical implications, because the government will be pushing for the removal of existing restrictions on the labour market, also because some of the transitional periods on labour mobility will expire for the majority of the new member states.
Although I am not sure whether Germany will be able agree to lift the restrictions completely with the elections in the Bundestag approaching. But there is another important aspect: portraying the enlargement as a success sends a message that the process should continue. And it fits well with the 'Europe without borders' motto.