V4 cooperation is intensive, EU needs more focus on defence, says Czech FM

  • Petr Boháček
  • 31.8.2017 11:39

An interview with Lubomir Zaoralek (CSSD) about foreign policy after three and a half years as Czech Republic's Foreign Minister.

Calls for an EU reform are appearing all over Europe after Brexit to ensure its survival. You specifically started the debate with the issue of free workforce movement. Which one of the five scenarios introduced by the European Commission is the most acceptable for you? And what role should the Czech Republic play in the EU reform?

I am convinced that European integration still fundamentally contributes to the peace, security and prosperity of the European continent. Our membership in the EU is a strategic choice and a basic economic, social, cultural and security framework of our development. That is why we want to continue to be a full-fledged member of the EU and participate in the further expansion of European integration. We consider the key EU activities within the Czech Republic to be mainly internal security, cooperation within the Schengen zone and protection of external borders, fight against terrorism, migration policy, promoting growth and investments, compliance with the rules of fiscal and economic surveillance, single currency stability, progress in completing the internal market - particularly in the area of energy -, services and the digital economy and financial markets, trade and foreign policy including defence policy.

The debates about how to ensure better functionality of the EU, to make it able to face the competitive pressures of the global economy, be a strong competitor on the international scene and be capable of protecting the security of its citizens, are basically being held permanently.

I believe that the current discussions about the future of the EU are very important for strengthening our citizens’ confidence in further integration processes. We will support a structured approach to this debate, which needs to be based on correct analyses of the current situation and focused on the areas where cooperation at the European level brings added value and where citizens expect the EU to be active -  be it economic growth and job creation, better competitiveness, or security and defence.

The Rome Declaration from this March is a good indicator of the future development of European integration. It defines four priority areas for the next ten years: 1) safe and secure Europe; 2) prosperous and sustainable Europe; 3) social Europe and 4) globally stronger Europe. The Czech Republic fully supported adopting the declaration and appreciates that aside from the aforementioned priorities, the EU also emphasises the need for more unity and solidarity within the EU-27. It is necessary to avoid fragmentation within the Union and focus European integration more in the direction of EU solidarity. The Czech Republic specifically aims for the acceleration of economic and social convergence between member states.

 

„We are able to enter the European discussions with a Visegrad‘s approach, that is already formulated and communicated between the four of us.“

 

The cooperation within the V4 has been intensifying in recent years. The V4’s image is, however, still fairly illiberal in the context of domestic policies and approach to the migration crisis. Could this image change? What other topics should the V4 focus on? Could it work as an opposite to French-German dominance in Europe? What role could the V4 play at the European level?

The Visegrad four is a group of countries with similar and shared history and also similar experiences. We cooperate and consult with each other and try to find our contribution to solving Europe’s shared problems, which are also our problems. I find it beneficial that we are able to enter the European discussions with a Visegrad‘s approach, that is already formulated and communicated between the four of us.

 

„The Visegrad cooperation has always been intensive, on all levels.“

 

The Visegrad cooperation has always been intensive, on all levels. Aside from cooperation at the highest levels, there is also cooperation on other levels, between departments, regions, institutions, universities and other schools, non-government organisations, but also in science or culture. The V4 has been around for over quarter of a century and in that time went through highs and lows that showed the contemporary priorities of political representatives of each country and also the influence of topics from the external environment. Despite this, we still see our neighbourhood as a space for close cooperation in the V4, which has not always been obvious but is, thanks to our historical experiences, invaluable.

Foreign ministers of the Visegrad four countries in Warsaw in November 2016. Copyright Profimedia.

 

„The European army project does in no way indicate a federal, armed body… individual countries will continue to have the final say.“

 

In reaction to the security situation in Europe and the new US administration ambiguity on transatlantic relations, the debate about a European army has re-emerged – a topic that will likely also resonate with the new French administration. How likely is the actual creation of such structure? To what extent should security integration and cooperation within the EU take place? And is an increase of the defence budget to 2 % of GDP possible and necessary?

The external environment in which the Union works has changed considerably in recent years. The environment immediately surrounding the EU has also changed, sadly for the worse. An unprecedented violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity has taken place. Dramatic developments are happening in the Middle East and North Africa, traditional state structures are weakening and extremist and radical groups are filling the vacuum. This development has negative impacts not only on the EU’s neighbourhoods but on the EU itself.

EU citizens are rightfully demanding the Union becomes a part of the solution and acts to secure their safety. Political representatives of the member states, in accordance with the institutions, are obligated to react to this challenge. If the EU wants to affirm its role as a global actor, it needs to be able to help solve conflicts quickly and effectively, strengthen stability, prevent threats - particularly in its own neighbourhood - and responsibly contribute to international security.

Therefore, the EU needs to be more active in the field of security and defence and use the full potential granted by the European treaties. Member states need to cooperate more closely and follow effective decision-making processes at the European level so we can effectively defend our common interests. In the aforementioned Rome declaration, member states clearly declare their wish to deepen cooperation on defence and security. But the „European army“ project does in no way indicate a federal armed corps designed to replace the individual countries‘ armies. On the issue of defence, individual countries have the final say and will continue to in the foreseeable future.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the Czech Republic had a stronger position on the international scene than its size would suggest. Do we have any chance of getting that position back? Could we, for example, contribute to EU’s foreign policy using our good relations with some non-European countries?

I would not idealise the beginning of the 1990s. Our country – Czechoslovakia then – was breaking up. Undoubtedly, that is no place to „return“ to. Us being in the spotlight internationally because of the echoes of the fairy-tale known as „the Velvet Revolution“, something that we can rightfully be proud of, is another thing. But we have walked far since then. Now we have to react to new challenges, not look sentimentally at the optimism of the 1990s. Above all, we have to be an active and creative actor in Europe. We have to do what we have always been able to do well, unless we had a right-wing government, find allies in the EU and promote the interests of our citizens.

We were able to establish normal relations with China, we are strengthening cooperation with South Korea, India and others. We are active in development assistance and economic diplomacy. Non-European and non-Western countries are composing a continuously growing share of the world’s GDP. Foreign policy, even in a so strongly rooted in Europe as the Czech Republic, needs to pay attention to that.

 

„If the reasons why the sanctions were put in place pass, the sanctions will surely be lifted.“

 

The Czech business community naturally puts pressure on normalising relations with Russia, lifting the sanctions in particular. In the context of the development of Nord Stream 2 or building the Paks nuclear power plant in Hungary with Russian Rosatom, the demand for cooperation with Russia is rising. Is this a gradual relaxing of business ties between the EU and Russia? Is there a path to normalisation or lifting the sanctions?

Yes, a path to normalisation of the relations between the EU and Russia and lifting the European restrictive measures does exist. The sanctions were put in place because the Russian Federation gravely violated international law and compromised the security and stability in Europe by occupying Crimea, incited violence in eastern Ukraine and continues to supply weapons and deploy thousands of members of their security forces on Ukrainian territory. The aim of the sanctions that the EU and other democratic countries applied is to convince Russian leadership to stop these actions. And if the reasons why the sanctions were put in place pass, the sanctions will surely be lifted. Besides, the sanctions, aside from clearly defined exceptions, do not obstruct the development of mutual economic relations. The EU still is Russia’s far largest economic partner (47 % of its exports) and in many areas (esp. natural gas) Russia is de facto dependent on European markets. European exports to Russia already started slowing down before the sanctions because of structural problems in Russia’s economy and clouded business environment. Without a fundamental reform, the problems and stagnation of Russian economy will continue. 

About author: Petr Boháček

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