Experts: New Czech government is ‘mildly Eurosceptic’

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The new Czech government, led by Petr Ne?as, was appointed yesterday (13 July) after a month of difficult coalition talks. Commenting on the coalition agreement, analysts warned of recurrent Euroscepticism, but said this would perhaps take a more mild form than in the previous cabinet. EURACTIV Czech Republic reports.

Three parties sealed an agreement on Monday (12 July): the Eurosceptic Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the more pro-European TOP 09 and Public Affairs (VV). The centre-right coalition, which holds a majority of 118 votes in the 200-seat lower house of parliament, is headed by ODS chairman Petr Ne?as.

The new prime minister delivered the document to Prague Castle, the seat of Eurosceptic president Václav Klaus, who appointed the new government on Tuesday morning. A vote of confidence in the lower chamber is expected to take place in a month's time, but a positive outcome is seen as a formality given the safe seat margin.

The coalition agreement is unprecedented in its length and detail. It comprises more than 50 pages, divided into seven chapters.

The agreement says the coalition is forming a cabinet of ''budget responsibility'' to support the rule of law and fight corruption. Other priorities include reforming public finances – with the aim of slashing the budget deficit from its current level of just under 6% of GDP to less than 3% by 2013 – as well as achieving a balanced budget by 2016, sweeping reform of pension and healthcare systems and the introduction of tuition fees at Czech universities.

No radical turns

One of the main commitments of the new government is continuing the country's foreign and EU policies.

''In the area of European policy there will be no radical turns. The rhetoric of the government towards the domestic audience will be more 'sceptical', but in a practical manner I would rather expect continuity of the policy,'' Radko Hokovský from Czech think-tank Evropské hodnoty (European Values) told EURACTIV.cz.

In recent years, the Czech Republic has projected itself as a country that is sceptical about deeper European integration. The main reason for this is the role of Václav Klaus, the staunchly Eurosceptic president who is well-known for his critical views of the EU and attracted worldwide attention when he opposed the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty last year.

Analyst Václav Bacovský from Czech think-tank Association for International Affairs (AMO) believes that more than just continuity is needed. ''I would like to advise the government not to emphasise continuity, but rather to try and find a new approach. In our case, continuity would mean non-transparent behaviour and a lack of interest [in EU integration],'' he said.

Empty words?

Indeed, it may appear that a new approach is on the way. ''The Czech Republic will pursue a self-confident, active and readable policy,'' reads the first sentence of the section of the agreement dedicated to EU affairs.

If the new government puts these promises into practice, it would mark a milestone in Czech-EU relations, according to analysts. Yet some question the worth of the statement.

''Our policy should be exactly like this [active and readable],'' stated Hokovský. However, he tends to believe that this promise is only ''a declarative statement'' lacking in deeper substance.

Analysts say they would like to see more details spelled out regarding future Czech policy towards Brussels. For example, the coalition agreement pledges its commitment to a common European energy policy, but few concrete projects are mentioned – only the Nabucco gas pipeline and interconnecting European energy networks.

According to Václav Bacovský, the explanation for this is that the three parties differ on EU affairs. ''All three coalition parties will belong to different political groupings in the European Parliament: TOP 09 to the European People’s Party (EPP), ODS to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and VV to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE),'' he pointed out.

In the agreement, the parties also pledge to advocate further EU enlargement – notably in the Western Balkans – and the Eastern Partnership, an area in which the Czechs have developed a sense of ownership after the initiative was launched last year in Prague during the country's EU presidency (EURACTIV 08/05/09).

Active on EU budget talks

Ne?as's government also wants to be an active player in discussions on the next EU budget, with the aim of keeping it at the current level of 1% of the EU's GNP after 2013.

On the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the new cabinet will seek to eliminate the differences in direct payments between old and new member states. Based on their accession treaties, the new member states do not currently get the full amount of subsidies that are generally available to farmers in the old 'EU 15' and must top up payments from their own national budgets.

The government has promised to oppose ''hidden agricultural subsidies'' that could potentially be used by some EU countries. The cabinet also says that the CAP budget should be lowered under the next financial framework.

As for recent EU proposals aimed at promoting budgetary discipline and avoiding Greek-style scenarios, the Czech government appears rather sceptical. ''Approving national public budgets must remain an exclusive competence of national parliaments,'' the coalition agreement states.

''Brussels is there to create common rules and to enforce their application. In times of crisis, the key role for the EU is to keep an eye on whether players abide by the rules,'' Alexandr Vondra, ODS vice-chairman and the new defence minister, told EURACTIV.cz in a pre-election interview.

The coalition partners also agreed that any country attempting to circumvent current rules should be punished, whether it is a eurozone member or not.

Meanwhile, the new government will abolish the post of Minister for European Affairs. These competences – the minister was largely seen as a coordinator of Czech EU positions –  will go directly to the prime minister.

Ne?as gains upper hand

As a rule, coalition agreements are the result of compromises between parties. Analysts and policy experts agree that Karel Schwarzenberg, leader of the pro-European TOP 09 party and the next foreign affairs minister, seemingly had to sacrifice most of his pre-election promises.

''TOP 09 stepped back from its unambiguously pro-European positions – both in terms of the party's generally positive stance towards further integration and in terms of other more specific issues,'' Hokovský commented.

Although Schwarzenberg's party initially disagreed, it finally gave the nod to a proposal put forward by Public Affairs (VV), according to which the government will need to call a national referendum on all proposals that would effectively mean shifting national competences to EU level.

''I can imagine this step brought Karel Schwarzenberg severe headaches,'' Václav Bacovský told EURACTIV.cz.

''This novelty is clearly a result of populism by the Public Affairs party, which wants to have its pre-election programme – direct democracy in this particular case – fulfilled at all costs,'' agrees Hokovský.

The 'Euro referendum' was also acceptable to ODS, which makes no secret of its reservations about further European integration.

''Here, we can witness the instinctive and 'rhetorical' Euroscepticism of ODS, which is happy to use strong language when talking about the EU,'' Hokovský added.

But at the same time, the analyst is convinced that in terms of real policy, the party ''will not move beyond the lines of other EU-cautious countries such as the Netherlands, Scandinavian countries, the United Kingdom or Germany''.

Following the Czech general elections on 27-28 May, the centre-left Czech Social Democratic Party (?SSD) emerged as the winner with 22.1% of the vote, but its leader Ji?í Paroubek resigned from his post as he could not find allies to form a cabinet. Instead, the centre-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS) – which came second with 20.2% – formed a centre-right coalition and its chairman, Petr Ne?as, was appointed prime minister.

The other members of the coalition, TOP 09 and Public Affairs (VV), gained 16.7% and 10.9% respectively and are represented in the parliament for the first time. The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KS?M) received 11.3%, while the Christian Democrats – a party with a long parliamentary tradition – and the Green Party failed to gain the 5% necessary to enter parliament (EURACTIV 31/05/10).

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