Czech FM: Visegrad countries will continue to promote EU enlargement

Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek speaks during a meeting with his Colombian counterpart Carlos Holmes Trujillo at the Chancery headquarters (San Carlos Palace), in Bogota, Colombia, 17 October 2019. [EPA-EFE/Mauricio Duenas Castaneda]

The Visegrad countries will need some time to close the ditches they have dug in recent years, Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček told in an interview. He also voiced doubts about the need for a reform of EU membership negotiations, demanded by France, saying the process is already reversible at any stage.

Tomáš Petříček has served as minister of foreign affairs for the Czech Republic since October 2018. He spoke to EURACTIV Czech Republic’s editor-in-chief Aneta Zachová.

We are currently witnessing a number of international crises and conflicts. What role should Europe play in these turbulent times?   

First, we should answer the question whether European soft power is still relevant for setting out a strategy on how our relations with individual partners should look like, or if we need to act more assertively like Russia or China.

Europe does not have the tools to resolve conflicts by force, nor is it the European style. While the impact of EU action is not so fast and medialised, it can be long-lasting. I would like the EU to act as a stabiliser who eases tensions. It is in our interest to create an international environment in which conflicts are resolved through dialogue, not through the use of force.

And is Europe currently the stabiliser? 

It has the potential to do so, but it has to think about its options more strategically. The Western Balkans is one example. If we want to play the role of a stabiliser there, then we fail. We are unable to provide our partners with a trustworthy enlargement process.

Do you think that decision-making by qualified majority would help to prevent certain decisions from being rejected because of the veto of one or two member states, as was the case with the opening of accession talks with Northern Macedonia and Albania?

We should open a debate on how to prevent a situation where one member state blocks the possibility for the EU to act together and promote a common solution. I have to admit that it is very frustrating to see when two states block the decision of a vast majority of states.

But this is what the current institutional set-up looks like. However, we are not in favour of opening the EU treaties, I think we should focus on consolidation. We are now unable to agree on some issues and our policy reflects the lowest common denominator rather than the ambition that the EU should have.

If the debate on qualified majority decision-making in the areas of foreign and security policy was opened, what position would the Czech Republic take? 

Our position is shaping up, we discuss it with the relevant representatives of our country and with the experts. Such a decision may have a major impact on Europe’s role as a global player. If 27 states agree on one position, it has much more weight than if only two-thirds of member states agree.

But we also have to think about the other side. If we introduce qualified majority decision-making, we must ensure that the adopted EU procedure is supported by those countries that have not raised their hands for that decision. It is necessary to ensure coherence and subsequent implementation of the decisions taken.

Following the escalation of the situation in Iraq and Iran, we first heard reactions from the United Kingdom, France and Germany, and the common position of all EU countries came only a few days later. In the future, could member states have fragmented reactions instead of adopting a common position?

If you look directly at those statements, you will find that they contained a very similar message. All states, including the Czech Republic, supported the EU position that it is necessary to calm the situation and avoid the risk of open conflict. We are pursuing the same goal in the Middle East and the EU realises that it must be more active in the region. This is an area that will have a direct impact on European security in the event of greater destabilisation.

The migration crisis has taught us that any conflict in the Middle East can result in a wave of migration. That is also why all foreign ministers wanted the EU High Representative Josep Borrell to come up with concrete proposals and initiatives, to strengthen regional dialogue or to take further steps that will build confidence among the opposing parties. In this case, therefore, I believe that we have reacted quickly, we have taken further steps and have managed to coordinate on the future of the nuclear agreement with Iran.

Let us now return to the subject of EU enlargement. The French proposal for the reform of the accession process is being discussed. Is such a proposal acceptable? 

I do not expect a final agreement to be reached before the March European Council, but I will be glad to be wrong in this regard.

In our view, the debate on the reform of the accession process must not be an obstacle to the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. According to the European Commission, both countries have fulfilled the conditions for opening accession negotiations and opening a long-term process during which they will have to improve the functioning of the judiciary or fight corruption. Nowhere is it said that if they do not fulfil the conditions, they must become a member of the EU.

The question of the reversibility of the accession negotiations is already a reality, so I am not sure whether we need the proposed reform. It is already true that if the candidate states fail to fulfil their obligations, accession negotiations are stopped.

France is the main opponent of opening accession negotiations. Maybe its reluctance is connected to the problems that the EU has to deal with in the new EU member states, such as Hungary and Romania?     

This may be a concern for some member states, but at the same time, they must realise that enlargement was a great success. The new member states have converged not only economically but also in areas such as environmental protection.

Regarding the situation in Hungary and Romania, we rather lack clarification on where the debate on a rule of law should go. For example, the question of the activation of Article 7 – the debate, apart from criticising some changes concerning academic freedom, has not resulted in anything specific.

Perhaps we should be more sincere in the EU. If someone is worried that another member state is not fulfilling its obligations under the treaties, let’s say what should be done. Otherwise, we will only toss the “hot potato” from hand to hand.

The guardian of the European Treaties is the European Commission. Should it lead the debate to specific outcomes?

Firstly, we must say what the outcome should be if Article 7 is activated against a member state. The debate is on, but not much is  shifting. We are talking about a mechanism whereby we can continually discuss the state of the rule of law in individual states, but that is actually all.

Returning to enlargement, can we expect that the V4 will be more active in this area? It is this group of countries that is now associated more with the deterioration of the rule of law than with any positive agenda.

Enlargement is certainly one of the main agendas in which we operate constructively. In the near future, there will be a meeting of the V4 and a group of six Western Balkan countries, to which we also invite representatives of the European institutions.

We want Visegrad to play a constructive role in shaping the next EU decision to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. We focus not only on the Western Balkans, but also on the Eastern Partnership countries. I think Visegrad could make a positive contribution to the debate.

Visegrad became a “toxic label” during the migration crisis. Are we able to improve our image in Europe?

Yes, but we still have a lot of work to do. It will take time to close the ditches that we have dug in recent years. We must move towards a new way of finding solutions.

In the area of ​​migration, we are still unable to reach a common solution to the problems. This is not so timely as the number of immigrants has fallen, but in the future, migration may return to the headlines.

Migration will undoubtedly be a topic in the new decade. Do we already know how to deal with it? Is the V4 going to come up with a constructive proposal this time?   

Over the past year, the topic has not shifted significantly at the EU level, but there are a number of sub-questions in which, as Visegrad, we could be more active.

This is, for example, the topic of African strategy and its implementation. We want the new European Commission to promote an investment plan for Africa and more structured dialogue with African partners, including the African Union. It will be one of our priorities. It is a way to prevent migration. We must tackle the causes and create the scope for dealing with the consequences, we must not go in the opposite direction.

Visegrad also has the potential to be more active in addressing instability in areas such as North Africa and the Sahel. In the last year, joint projects with Germany emerged and it is a topic where we can start a dialogue with France, which is very active in the fight against terrorism.

It seems that the Czech Republic is too confined to Visegrad cooperation, isn’t it? 

No. In the long term, we are looking for partnerships through which we can best promote the interests of our country and our citizens.

Visegrad is just one of several major platforms. We cooperate with Austria and Slovakia within the framework of the so-called Slavkov format, we have a strategic partnership with Germany and we try to open new ways of cooperation with smaller countries. We also offer cooperation to Croatia, the Baltic States, but also Portugal. Within the V4 we do not agree on everything, for example, the question of Ukraine.

You are a member of the Czech Social Democratic Party, which is currently facing a very low level of popularity in the Czech Republic. While in some countries we see a similar development as in our country, in other countries the social democracy is again “on a top.” How do you see the future of social democracy in the Czech Republic?     

As you say, the situation is not black and white. There are countries like Finland, Denmark, Spain or Portugal, where social democracy is able to convince voters that it is the right choice for them and that they do not have to run to populist movements.

The Czech Social Democracy has a similar problem as the SPD in Germany, where voters inclined to other alternatives. Our problem is that we have not been able to clearly address fundamental issues. It is the unreadability that has led to a loss of credibility.

Therefore, following the example of our more successful colleagues from Finland and other countries, we want to start a longer-term process of internal program debate. We need to be clear about how we will deal with environmental protection, the future of the labour market and other key issues. We cannot send inconsistent signals anymore.

Protecting the environment and combating climate change are among the EU’s priorities. Throughout Europe, we have also witnessed the rise of “green” parties – not only in the European Parliament but also in neighbouring Germany. Will the Green Agenda be a topic for the Social Democrats?

Social democracy has devoted itself to this topic a long time ago. But we have to say clearly what our policy is and what solutions we are proposing.

We must achieve that the transition to a more sustainable and carbon-neutral economy creates new opportunities and enables people to find a better job. We cannot allow the costs of transformation to be borne by the people themselves. Transformation must reduce social inequality, not increase it.

We will help people engage in energy production. We will fight energy poverty. It is in these areas that I see a huge space for social democracy. But we have to formulate it clearly from our side. For me, green policy is more a social policy complemented by green issues.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Georgi Gotev]

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