Czech minister: ‘Time is tight, but we’ll deliver’

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“We have climbed on board an express train, but we have no doubt about the train reaching the end of the line on time with a maximum number of goals achieved,” Czech EU Affairs Minister Štefan Füle told EURACTIV.cz in an interview, referring to his country’s stint at the EU helm.

Štefan Füle is the Czech minister for European affairs.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

What does the Czech EU Presidency have to achieve by the end of June and what are your personal priorities? 

A lot still remains to be done. Most important will be the June European Council, but that is not the only event ahead of us. Since the new government assumed power, I have counted 13 additional ministerial meetings or meetings at the level of deputy minister. These events are usually run by ministers, they have a concrete agenda, and they push the work of the presidency a step further. 

Apart from these councils, another five events are set to take place in June. We are talking about significant events such as the Nuclear Forum or the Holocaust Conference. 

It is not just about the number of events. A number of things have yet to be solved, and the best indicator of their importance is the agenda of the June European Council. 

For instance, we will need to conclude the guarantees for Ireland, so that the Irish can hold a second referendum – hopefully with a positive result this time. The decision depends, of course, solely on them. 

With regard to the current economic crisis, the second most important point is the introduction of a package of economic and financial measures. We need to evaluate not just how financial stimuli and rescue packages work, but also come up with a draft on changing the means of EU financial market regulation. 

This area also includes social matters and employment, and we will definitely want to discuss the upcoming G20 summit, as well as the future means of representation at this important forum. 

The third area of interest is climate change and the preparations for the EU conference in Copenhagen, which should replace the Kyoto Protocol with a more ambitious plan. 

Even though the Swedish Presidency will be dealing with the bigger part of the topic, our aim is to prepare a position for the EU that will allow the Union to be a constructive player in the process. 

There is, therefore, quite a lot to be done. We have climbed aboard an express train, but we have no doubt about the train reaching the end of the line on time with a maximum number of goals achieved. 

You mentioned guarantees for the Lisbon Treaty. What stage are we at in preparing these guarantees? Are you still considering them as an amendment to the accession treaty with Croatia? There are fears that if these guarantees become part of the accession treaty, their critics might legally challenge them… 

The guarantees for Ireland are one of the top priorities of the current government. We would like to have a text ready for the June European Council, and we would also like to be clear about the way it will be ratified. 

During my visit in Ireland [on 14 May] I met the minister of foreign affairs, Micheál Martin, and the minister for European affairs, Dick Roche, with whom I discussed a sort of roadmap which would lead us to a result. 

We have agreed that in the week between 25 and 29 May bilateral consultations will take place in Brussels between Ireland and those EU member states with an express interest in this debate on concrete issues. We have agreed on the method of cooperation with the country holding the EU presidency, as well as on the second stage of consultations that will include the presidency and the Council Secretariat. We have also reached an agreement on when and how we will introduce the guarantee text at multilateral level. 

We have an idea about what role the General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) should play on the eve of the June European Council. 

We agree that robust commitments should be able to counter Irish fears. At the same time, their adoption should not at all open or cast doubt on the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. 

We are moving in the framework that was defined at the December European Council. The wording of the guarantees, as well as the form of their adoption – whether they will be added to this or that – are the subject of negotiation and it would be irresponsible of me to say which direction they are heading. 

Diplomatic sources told EURACTIV that while there should be no problem with other guarantees, the declaration on worker’s rights might cause concern among certain member states. Can you explain this? 

I can explain that only in general terms. I hope that in my previous statement I managed to explain clearly that we are at the beginning of the stage for discussing concrete issues. 

The extent of flexibility is given by the decision of the December European Council. It means that the issue of whether the declaration will form part of the so-called ‘soft guarantees’ is neither discussed nor speculated upon. We only need to find a wording that will allow us to maintain the delicate balance that exists among member states in this area. 

Our Irish partners are well aware of that, and other member states understand that they should accommodate the Irish, and make their task as easy as possible. 

Would you welcome the completion of the Lisbon Treaty ratification process in the Czech Republic before the second referendum in Ireland takes place? Do you find such a scenario realistic? 

I believe it is important that the parliamentary stage of the ratification was completed in May. I think that it was a relatively strong signal towards our partners, and a fulfillment of our pledge. I do not want to speculate about how the president will make use of his constitutional right. I am convinced however that he will make the right decision at the right time. 

On the one hand, I am aware of the opinions at EU level, where our partners would welcome a faster completion of the ratification process. On the other hand, I as a citizen of the Czech Republic understand that there are questions about the Lisbon Treaty that remain to be answered. I therefore have an understanding of the president’s actions. 

In my opinion he is taking a relatively democratic approach to the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. He wants to provide the senators with enough time to ask the Constitutional Court to examine the treaty [a group of senators expressed their interest in sending the treaty to Constitutional Court once again, this time with different questions to be answered; the senators signalled their intentions just after the ‘yes’ vote in the Senate last month]. 

But in my view, the previous decision of the Constitutional Court already creates a solid base for the argument that the Lisbon Treaty is not contrary to the Czech constitution. I’m convinced that the process will end in such a fashion that the Lisbon Treaty will be here sooner rather than later. 

The mandate of the current European Commission is about to end, and we still do not know the identity of its future president. Do you want to see the nomination of the new president before the Czech Presidency expires, or do you want to leave it up to the Swedes? 

No, the Czech government will not leave it up to the Swedish Presidency. The current mandate commits the Czech Presidency to doing it, and we refuse to abandon our commitments. 

We have agreed on the issue with the Swedish minister for European affairs, Cecilia Malmström. The Swedes expressed their support for us, and they have left the fulfillment of the December and March European Council tasks up to us. 

We want to raise the question at the European Council in June, and we are of course discussing the issue right now. Last week (18-22 May), the prime minister, the minister of foreign affairs and I have decided on a schedule of preparations for the June European Council. 

The election of the new president of the European Commission is among the most important issues. During the consultations with our partners we want to take into account the results of the European Parliament elections. These will be very important for decision-making at the European Council. 

We want the European Council to embrace a political mandate which will move us forward on the issue. We will be negotiating with other member states, but it is too early to anticipate the results of these discussions. The Czech Presidency wants the European Council, after taking into consideration the results of European elections, to express more clearly its position as to the name of the next president of the Commission. 

A number of top EU officials have already declared their support for incumbent José Manuel Barroso. What is the stance of the Czech government on this? 

On this issue, we do not deviate from the stance of the former government, which has expressed satisfaction with the current European Commission president and which intended to support him. 

Barroso has the sympathies of the Czech Presidency, but we remain open to the opinions of other member states. But it is premature to be making conclusions now, at the end of May, and say where we will be in the middle of June after the European elections. 

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