EU membership fundamental, Russian sanctions meaningful, says Drahos

  • Monika Tesařová
  • 25.8.2017 09:42

An interview about foreign policy with the front-runner of the presidential elections, which will take place on 12 and 13 January 2018.

Even though the president does not have a direct influence on foreign policy in the Czech parliamentary system and only has a representative position, would you actively want to influence Czech foreign policy and how?

Our roots are in the Euro-Atlantic society and I would resist to any geopolitical shift, after all, we have had our experiences with some Eastern countries. (Editorial note: the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968).

Our allies in the EU and NATO are key. We belong to Europe. Therefore, the calls for us to play the role of a bridge between Europe and Russia or China are, to me, meaningless. Yet, at the same time, there is no reason why we, if we want to, could not have courteous relations with other countries.


„I find our EU membership absolutely fundamental.”


If the government’s foreign policy fundamentally diverged from yours, for example on the issue of NATO or EU memberships, how would you proceed?

According to the Article 63 of the Constitution, the president represents the country abroad, but of course, it is assumed he proceeds in line with the government. I find it somewhat unfortunate when the government and the president send different signals on foreign policy. At most, I would try to find some kind of a consensual position with the government. The president does not have to agree with everything and foreign policy is determined by the government.

Because I find our EU membership absolutely fundamental, I cannot imagine clashing with the government on this issue. I hope that if I become the president, the prime minister, whom I would choose to put together the cabinet, will not have any doubts about our membership in the Union. Hypothetically, this could happen but as with other issues I would try to reach an agreement with the government and specific ministers and not let the situation escalate to a point where it is „either-or“.


„When it comes to our foreign policy orientation, the current government is clear enough.”


The rapprochement of the Czech Republic and Russia, as well as the opening up to China, has been lately frequently debated, which could lead our Western allies to feel some unclarity or confusion about our foreign policy. How would you try to improve our reputation with our allies?

It is important to formulate our opinions clearly and comprehensibly. Of course, we do not have to agree with everything being said at meetings of member states. However, when it comes to our foreign policy orientation, I think the government is clear enough and in accordance with the opinions of our allies, with a few exceptions, such as the apologetic letter from our representatives to China. (Editorial note: the letter refers to the declaration of four highest government authorities distancing themselves from the meeting between the Czech Minister of Culture and Dalai Lama in October 2016).

As far as the rapprochement with Russia and China, I would strictly separate the economic and the political level. As I have said before, our roots are unambiguously in the Euro-Atlantic area, which does not rule out courteous economic relations with China or Russia. After all, Russia is a significant partner to us and China is a world superpower. On the economic level, we should definitely talk to them but this is should in no way signal any geopolitical shifts to the east.

It is rather difficult to find common ground politically, since the regime in Russia, even though it is a parliamentary democracy, is different from our traditions. The same applies to China. On the political level, we should start from this assumption and focus towards Europe and our allies.


Jiří Drahoš je podle posledních průzkumů favoritem na post prezidenta.According to betting offices, professor Drahos is the front-runner in the presidential elections. Copyright Jiri Drahos.


„Sanctions against Russia are still meaningful.“


In the past, you have said there is no reason to stop the sanctions against Russia, yet they are gradually weakening. Do you think Russia could become a liberal democracy and thus a partner and ally to Europe?

The EU has recently prolonged its economic sanctions, the same was done by the United States. I do not think that liberalisation of the regime in Russia is moving particularly fast, it often seems to be the opposite.

We have to realise that the sanctions were imposed as a reaction to the Russian annexation of Crimea, which is a violation of international law and, in particular, the Budapest Treaty, by which Russia, along with other countries, guaranteed Ukranian territorial integrity. In the EU, the result was an agreement about economic sanctions, which, in my opinion, are still meaningful.

Of course, I understand not everyone might like the sanctions. However, when I talked to a number of exporting Czech companies after the sanctions were imposed, none of them complained too much after some time, they generally turned to other markets. As far as our economy, these sanctions do not have any particularly negative impact.

The sanctions are mainly „educational“ in character. They are not meant to harm common citizens but symbolically point at something that should not have happened, yet, is still happening – Russia is still not following the Minsk agreements.

Trading with China, but also Azerbaijan or other countries criticised for violations of human rights, opens the question of the human rights dimension of Czech foreign policy. Would you prioritse the economic or the human rights dimension of Czech foreign policy?

I cannot unilaterally support one or the other. Human rights are an important part of our democratic system, we cannot look over the fact they are not respected in a number of countries – very visibly in some, less so in others. During visits of political-economic nature, I find appropriate to point this out to our partners. Of course, you cannot automatically expect that if for example we alert Chinese representatives about human rights violations something significant will happen right away.

Referring to human rights can also affect economic agreements to a certain extent which we cannot forget. Even as a realist, I am convinced we should reasonably emphasise human rights. We cannot rely on our exports only succeeding because we are silently witnessing everything happening in these countries. We have to believe we are able to export Czech products primarily because of their quality and prices acceptable to both partners. On the other hand, we cannot expect that all the countries violating human rights will accept Euro-Atlantic values right away only because we recommend it.

In connection with Russia and China, it also bothers me that our current president is not developing closer economic ties with, for example, South America, which is potentially a very interesting area. Our president prefers China but from an economic point of view what is happening is only the spreading of Chinese economic influence (in the country). I personally do not see any significant positive impact on our economic productivity so far.

You recently said: „I find the NATO membership undisputable. We have to deal with our security in a Europe-wide context because no country can handle its security locally.“ Does this quote mean you put more emphasis on European ties than the Atlantic ones?

By this I wanted to say that nowadays even a more geopolitically relevant country is not able to simply ensure its integrity, defence and security alone, and therefore I emphasise our NATO membership and agree with Donald Trump that all NATO states should fulfill their commitments and reach the defence contribution that we pledged in the past. I definitely find our NATO membership very important.

What is your opinion on a common European army, which has been talked about recently?

There is the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, FRONTEX that should help guard Europe’s external borders. This was not meant to be a primarily military protection or an army. I do, however, think that European countries should count on the fact that if migration flows become stronger again, the agency’s role should be revised. It should either be strengthened or a different common system of border protection, capable of preventing an uncontrollable migration wave, should be established. However, I would not talk about a European army, which is, so far, a purely theoretical discussion.

So we should be helping other countries solve their crises on their territory. Does that also apply to another country on the EU’s outskirts – Syria?

It is important to differentiate between two things – one being the help to refugees from war zones, which is the case of Syria. Millions of Syrians are currently in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan. According to international law and EU’s asylum policy, they are in safe countries and Europe can financially help them, for example, the payments to Turkey. But European Commission’s approach to the issue of the so-called refugee quotas is very unfortunate. It is a politically harmful system, which is also very likely ineffective.

We help not only financially - such as in the aforementioned camps in Turkey - but also offer help on the Italian border and have a number of non-profit organisations that help, for example, in Afghanistan or Syria.

The second group are economic migrants, mainly from Africa. These are often people coming from places, where the problems with drought are growing. Economically, they are at a low level. For these people, Europe is a promised land. However, Europe cannot solve problems of such a big part of the population as Sub-Saharan Africa or numerous Asian countries. It is key to try and help on the spot. The drought cannot be solved easily but we can teach the local population how to adapt, teach them what they can do in unfavourable conditions or how to grow crops adaptable to drought, etc.


„There is no rush with adopting the euro.”


You are an advocate of the EU, but not of Eurofederalism. You do not have a defined stance on the euro. Czech political parties prefer to avoid issues such as the EU or the adoption of the euro, would you open the debate on this topic or would you be more reserved about it?

I would certainly not be closing my eyes about the euro. I cannot ignore the growing interest of industrialists and businesses for the adoption of the euro. Export-oriented companies would welcome it. Adopting the euro is a wholly political issue, the Czech Republic meets the Maastricht criteria, we could adopt the euro from this perspective.

Many arguments for and against, which are not particularly technical but rather political, are appearing. The base of the Eurozone is not laid well, we have the Greece crisis, unsolved problems with Italian banks, etc.. On the other hand, I hear the calls for us to adopt the euro in a reasonable timeframe. This process alone would take at least three years.

Personally, I would now wait how the parliamentary elections turn out. However, as a president, I would be opening the debate and would want to hear rational arguments from both sides. In my opinion, there is no rush.

Would you be for a referendum about the adoption of the euro?

I am especially an advocate of local referendums. I also do not mind a referendum on a countrywide level, but there are geopolitical issues on which I would hesitate to call for a referendum. Adopting the euro is an important decision, it is important that the government decides on this after an expert debate and hearing all opinions.

You mentioned some competencies should be returned to national governments in the EU. Which specifically? Should some, on the contrary, also be given to the EU government in Brussels?

Concerning competencies that should be strengthened at the European level, it is the common energy policy, in particular in relation to third countries – no single state has such a strong negotiating position against Russia as Europe as a whole. Other issues that we cannot solve on the local level are security or digitalisation, which is a general trend that does not respect borders and it is useful here to agree with our partners within the EU what to do next. One of the important but omitted areas is medical policy – the implementation and testing of medicine. There is currently a principle that medical testing in Germany applies to the whole EU because we do not have the experts or financial capacities to introduce some forms of medicine to the market and test them. Medical policy is one of the more successful central EU decisions.  

One of the reasons for certain scepticism towards Brussels is the idea that they tell us how to do everything. Mostly it is a myth. The folk tale is that Brussels tells us how long a pickle should be or how curved a banana should be. According to our diplomats in Brussels the problem is rather that our Czech representatives do not have any opinions and often also cannot negotiate any support for their proposals and then complain at home about the Union bossing us around.

Regarding competencies that should be moved to the national level, I would not point out any specific ones but would consider what is key and should be handled on a European level and what the states can handle for themselves. A simple test of the principle of subsidiarity.


Copyright Profimedia.


 „The president should be a person that names things based on facts, not on a partisan bias.”


Euroscepticism is widely spread across the public in the V4 countries, especially in the Czech Republic. Why don‘t the Czechs like the EU? Would you, as a president, try to appeal to the public and change this position in your public appearances and statements?

This is certainly one of the most important presidential roles, which is why the president should not be connected to any political party. The president should be a person who names things based on facts, not on a partisan bias, and tries to inform people and push the government to also correctly inform and not take one-sided and single-purpose positions.

As a president I would certainly actively participate in this, there is never enough correct information. If the president devalues his authority by daily commenting on trivialities then other important messages or calls from him could be overlooked. I believe that the president should comment on key issues loudly and firmly, and leave the day-to-day politics to the parliament and government.

About author: Monika Tesařová


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