Czech minister: Government to hold series of public debates on EU future

Aleš Chmelař [Website of the Czech government]

The Czech government has responded to the challenge laid down by French President Emmanuel Macron and is going to start a series of public discussions on what shape the EU should take in the future, Aleš Chmelař, Czech State Secretary for EU affairs, told Aktuálně.cz.

This interview with the Czech State Secretary for EU affairs Aleš Chmelař was originally published on 20 February 2018 by Aktuálně.cz, EURACTIV Czech Republic’s media partner.

He spoke to Ondřej Houska.

Given that some surveys say the EU is highly unpopular among Czechs, aren’t you afraid that people will say to you during these discussions: we want the EU to catch migrants and shoot them down?

If people make comments on the EU, then, regarding the very low awareness of European affairs, it is disputable what exactly they are talking about. The question is if they are addressing some actual European issues or our EU membership in general. The aim of these consultations is just to show how it is in reality. In contrary to the past when politicians and well-known personalities presented their views unilaterally and people shouted their opinions at the speakers.

What is your main idea regarding these public discussions?

We would like to start the whole process in April at a big conference in Prague in which the Czech prime minister and other European personalities will take part. The debates in the regions should be of vital significance. We want personalities, well-known in these regions, to discuss the EU with the people during these debates.

They should be accompanied by a minister or other personality familiar with the topic who is able to discuss it openly without any limitation. Nobody will dictate the topics and people can mention what they want by their own. We are planning events in all regional towns.

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What will you do with the results of these debates?

The concluding event will be organised in Prague as well, in the autumn. It should reflect which results these debates have produced and what the people wish. We want these debates to be real consultations. We would like the people to say what is their main concern in relation to the EU, what they are awaiting for from the EU and in which manner the Czech government including the prime minister representing the Czech Republic should behave.

French President Emmanuel Macron wants the European elections campaign to be about European themes and not about healthcare fees, for example. So he wants to have one transnational list presented to voters in all European countries separate from the classical party lists as well. Why is the Czech Republic against this idea?

In our opinion it is not obvious what added value this transnational list could have. In European elections, people don’t identify themselves with all-European party factions and they don’t follow the Europe-wide debate. If we introduce transnational lists in such a situation, there would be a mess and people would not know what they are expressing their opinion on. We think that a Europe-wide debate should emerge first and after this debate has been lead we can start to think about such initiatives.

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How could such a debate be developed?

One path to it could be set by these consultations with people. Nevertheless, the debate on EU should be cultivated and continued permanently. A permanent discussion between the so-called Prague bubble and the rest of the country is necessary. This problem can’t be solved in one year time, maybe neither in five years time, but we should work on it. At the moment when we don’t have a Europe-wide debate, it is not possible to create a transnational list the import of which people could understand. It is not only our problem, electoral participation is relatively low in all member countries.

In Slovakia, the highest representatives of the state have signed a common declaration that EU membership is in the vital interest of their country. And the support for Slovak EU membership surged by 10% immediately. Is it not time for the Czech elites to do the same?

The Czech political elites have not lived through what the Slovak Republic as a whole did at the end of the nineties. Slovak people had then a choice – should they head for the Western Balkans, the East, or should they stay in Europe? They have led this debate and they have realised what problems they would’ve faced if they had not joined the EU.

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It has been not the case in the Czech Republic?

Among the political and economic elites in the Czech Republic, a general feeling of self-evidence has prevailed, a feeling that we live at the centre of Europe and that our biggest neighbour is Germany and we have taken certain things for granted, absolutely. Thus, we have not realised that the European project has an added value.

The Slovak elites have realised that quite well due to their different experience. And so they have not been tempted to give preference to some short-term benefit that would have brought them popularity, even from an immediate point of view, to the detriment of a long-term benefit which is the participation in the European project.

On the contrary, leading personalities in the Czech Republic have not mentioned this subject or they have joined people presenting misleading and often untruthful argumentation. From our own environment we are familiar with many fictive debates about what is Europe and what it isn‘t.

Is it possible to lead a rational debate on Europe in the Czech Republic in times when the public is discussing the inflammatory topic of migration?

As for migration, there‘s no rational debate on both sides. Those who insist on national refugee quotas ignore the fact that those don’t represent  a solution to the migration crisis. Under the quota arrangements not even two percent of migrants have been transferred to other countries.

We are against quotas because it is an inefficient measure that creates much more social tension and problems in the member states than it could really dissolve. Even in the countries supporting the quotas, there are many dissenting opinions on them.

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The Czech Republic disagrees with the so-called Spitzenkandidat process. Is this opposition to this idea so strong that it could vote against it as the UK and Hungary did four years ago?

There were other member countries opposing this idea as well but they weren’t able to come up with a sufficiently strong candidate on their own. Today, there are very few member states supporting this process including the big countries. But now, we have to reach an agreement on what alternative and in the meantime democratic and a transparent process to choose the European Commission president.

Can you elaborate?

I can imagine that the European Council will present some candidates accepted later by the European Parliament as its Spitzenkandidaten. Or that several acting prime ministers who won’t present their candidature for the European elections will apply for it saying that they will be interested in becoming president of the European Commission after these elections if they find sufficient support in the European Parliament and the European Council.

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