Vondra: ‘Europe without barriers’ top priority for Czech Presidency

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Completing the internal market for labour, goods and services will be a priority for the Czech Republic when it assumes the six-month rotating presidency of the EU in January 2009 on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, Czech Vice-Premier and EU Affairs Minister Alexandr Vondra told EURACTIV France in an interview.

Alexandr Vondra is vice-premier and minister for European affairs in the Czech Republic. 

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

‘Europe without barriers’ was presented as the slogan of the upcoming Czech EU Presidency in 2009. What does that mean exactly? What are your other priorities? 

For us, but also for all central and eastern European countries, 2009 is a special year, because we will commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain. This historical event made the EU enlargement possible. So I think this is the first reason for having chosen this priority. 

Then, despite all this institutional reform, the EU is the most important area where you can find those four types of freedom: movement, people, goods and services. And we would like to see them fully enforced. We’ll take the EU presidency in spring 2009, so the Lisbon agenda and Europe’s competitiveness will be also very important. 

2009 is an important milestone for the liberalisation of the labour market. At this time, some western countries, which set up transition periods, will decide whether to fully open their market. If it should not be a key problem for France, Germany has to make a decision. 

But if you take it pragmatically, for example in my country, unemployment has reached a high and is at about 5%. Opening the labour market has therefore mostly a symbolic meaning. 

My recommendation would be to move ahead. I can hardly imagine that for the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, there would be still barriers on the EU labour market. 

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that the French EU presidency would be under the sign of “protective Europe”. Isn’t that a bit paradoxical considering your priorities? 

Well, the barriers I was talking about are internal ones. You now talk about external borders. Certainly we are a pro-enlargement country, so we want to keep the doors open for the others. At the same time, we understand that immigration or asylum policy is important for your country and we noticed that France is eager to make a common immigration policy one of its priorities for the Union. And I think that the French proposal could be in line with our interest in keeping the EU doors open. Indeed, we can enlarge the Union only if there is enough support among the Europeans themselves. Maybe those new proposals can help to correct public opinion regarding the outside world. 

Slovenia doesn’t seem to fully agree with the French government’s communication on its future EU presidency. Do you share this irritation? 

Well, your president declared that he wants to bring France back onto the European stage. And it is true that we need France to be among the leaders, so I don’t think that your communication is too abrasive. We’ll see when we take our presidency next spring, but I believe that French politicians would also respect the interests of other member states. 

How would you qualify your cooperation with France in the preparation of the Presidency trio (France, the Czech Republic and Sweden)? 

We have very good relations with French political leaders, like for instance Jean-Pierre Jouyet. Of course we have different opinions, for example on the Common Agricultural Policy. We are more liberal, we are in favour of spending more money for science and new technologies, rather than to be consumed just by farmers. 

The European Union is an entity of 27 countries, there are some differences among them, but until now, we have a lot in common. 

Some people say that the countries which joined the European Union in 2004 are not ready to share the burden, for example on renewables. Do you agree with this opposition between small and big countries? 

On renewables, we certainly have our limits. Our hydro potential, for example, is not the same as in Austria or in Norway. 

We are not like big countries, or like Scotland, where it rains everyday. In the middle of Europe, there is not much sun either, and biofuels have a limited potential. In addition, our country has a very dense population. There are a lot of villages and you cannot destroy villages to produce a big field or various crops that can be used for biofuels. So we have very limited potential on renewables. 

But if you consider the Kyoto protocol, it is different. Reference for Kyoto is 1990 levels, and we are among the few EU countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by more than 20% in the past 15 years. 

We have a lot of questions about the new system. The new emissions trading system has probably to be more effective, but the devil could be in the detail and we need a serious debate on it. 

On one hand, you have to contribute to the environment’s protection, and on the other hand, traditional industrial countries want to increase their competitiveness in the world. It is an important theme and I expect a lot of discussion on this. 

What is your country’s position on the French Mediterranean Union project? 

For us, the Mediterranean area is the cradle of our European western culture, but that’s one side of the coin. On the other hand, we recommend being careful with the priorities of one part of Europe compared to the other one, because with that kind of approach, we could on our side develop the Baltic Sea Union or the Black Sea Union. I think we should have a balanced attitude on this issue. 

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