Ivo Slosarcik is a professor of European and International law at the Charles University of Prague (Jean Monnet Center of Excellence). He also participated in founding the Institute for European policy EUROPEUM. During the Czech Presidency of the European Union, he was a member of the advisory committee of the Czech Vice-Prime minister, Alexander Vondra. In this interview, M. Slosarcik draws up his assessment of the Czech Presidency and his view on the future of the rotating Presidency.
What was your exact role during the Czech presidency of the European Union in 2009?
Having the Presidency of the European Union means that the visibility of the EU agenda is updated in the public discourse of a country. The position of the country, at least in pre-Lisbon times, was updated somehow and its visibility higher in the EU area.
For Czech Republic this was, not different, but more complex because the EU agenda had been very high in the public debate here for the last ten years. There had been a huge debate about the Czech Republic’s accession, then a very complicated debate around the Constitutional treaty, then around the Lisbon treaty and then the Presidency came.
However, we, at the EU department, were asked to be active both in our own capacity (academic, public persons) but also by the Government. Personally, I was asked to be a member of the advisory Committee of the vice-Prime minister, Alexander Vondra, who was in charge of EU Presidency business. The Committee was responsible for the set up of the Presidency’s priorities. I was asked to advise the vice-Prime minister on what the Czech presidency should look like and what topics should be addressed. It was a mix committee: half of the members were non governmental speakers such as academics or media representatives and the other half was composed of high civil servants. We organized regular breakfasts and talks about what could be done and within half a year we had agreed on the areas which the Presidency would be dedicated to. My contribution was especially centered on the institutional topics and the chapter of internal justice in the Czech Presidency program.
The Presidency also means that the country hosts quite a number of EU and other countries’ officials talking about the EU, and usually in their programs they don’t want to talk only with officials, but also with academics and even students, so our department took a very active part in organizing that.
Lastly, it is often said that the real Presidency work is launched a year before the actual start of it and that if you are well prepared the Presidency is still intense, not boring, but a manageable affair! During the Presidency all civil servants and all the opposition are so overbooked with everyday business that there is no time for conceptualizing. So, also for me, the most interesting and intensive time was during the year before.
What is your opinion on the Czech presidency’s assessment?
First: we survived! Second: we performed worse than we could, we performed worse than we should but we performed better than we are generally perceived by the other EU actors.
Firstly, why could we have done better? We had nice plans but then we had to face reality: seven days after the beginning of the Presidency, the gas crisis broke out and then the Gaza crisis started. Thus, we had to go into areas we had limited expertise in, especially in the Gaza area. Further, we were considered by many actors as biased: in the Gaza area, for being too pro-Israelis and regarding the gas crisis, for being too anti-Russian. But we had to go in because we were the Presidency!
We had some long-term plans and concerns, on the energy policy for example, but in the first two months we had to concentrate on these short term solutions and the crisis management. So, we could have performed better if the environment had been better but we had to face the real world. Of course, we might have been happier and more efficient in pursuing our plans for economic governance if there had not been a crisis! So we ran a quite difficult Presidency without being guilty for it.
And last but not least, we were the last pre-Lisbon Presidency, in other words it was a time of waiting for the real business to start with the Lisbon treaty! On the other hand, we also benefited from it because we were in the last semester of the EU Parliament’s mandate before elections. In facts, we lost two months of Presidency because of the upcoming parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, the members of Parliament wanted to finish their job which means that, for instance, the number of legislative proposals which were actually finalized during the Presidency was quite high comparing to other presidencies because the EU Parliament was seeing the deadline and could not postpone for the next semester.
Secondly, why should we have done better? This, of course, is linked to the Czech governmental crisis. We were stupid enough and responsible enough, especially the opposition but to some extent even the governmental part, to destroy the Government in the middle of the Presidency. All the more so that we did not vote out one Prime minister against another one: in the middle of the Presidency (by the end of March) the Parliament, by a small majority of two votes, outvoted the Government and then took another month looking for a new Prime minister, as he was not replaced by someone of the opposition. We spent one month looking for a new, neutral and transitional Prime minister. We found him: a pretty decent person but not with particular experience as head of political office, and he had to handle out the second half of the Presidency. Of course he did quite a good job but he had definitely not a heavy weight in international politics. So, it was our fault if we damaged the Presidency especially as it happened in the middle of it. Usually a Presidency is remember for the two or three things it did, and we did quite interesting things in the energy policy, for instance, we also launched the Eastern partnership project; we might not have been totally successful but at least we tried to do things. Nevertheless, what we will be remembered for is first the breaking down of our Government (and it is not like in Belgium where they were not able to form one: we had one and we destroyed it!) and second, for “Entropa” the interesting artistic thing done by Cerny! And again, it, a bit unjustly, overshadowed the real Czech Presidency business and quite a number of things we did: quite down to earth business but quite hardworking ones.
So we should have done better, we could have done better but we did better than we were expected to.
Do you think the Czech presidency of the EU had an impact on the Czech public opinion on the EU?
It did have some impact the EU popularity in Czech Republic. It used to be considered as a non important thing by Czech people and it gained, for sure, popularity because of the Presidency.
However, it had a real impact on the popularity of the Prime minister, of the people managing the Presidency, because they actually found a very clear business to do; they were able to step away from this everyday domestic politics and start to deal with the big politics. They were being seen with high profile work positions: with Putin, with Angela Merkel, with the head of the European Commission, etc. Thus, the popularity of the Prime minister and of the vice-Prime minister (even if he was popular before) started to increase quite extensively and it was one of the reasons why the opposition actually called for the vote of confidence. They were afraid that the Presidency could make the Prime minister too popular and help him to win the next elections, although those elections were to be held not during the Presidency but approximately one year after. It was, however, enough for the opposition to attack the Government and vote it out.
There is much debate around the EU having too many presidents now. What is your opinion on the opportunity of still having a rotating Presidency?
Let’s take the performance of the last three presidencies: the rotating presidencies after the Lisbon treaty entered into force. The picture is rather not optimistic! The Spanish Presidency was a kind of super transitional Presidency, it didn’t know what to do with the Lisbon treaty in reality, Catherine Ashton was still fighting for her position and the structure of the European External Service, etc. So, it was a transitional Presidency and not much has been done by it.
The Belgium rotating presidency kept a low level profile because they did not have a real Government; and we also remember M. Van Rompuy’s announcement saying he was quite happy to shift its agenda to the EU.
And the Hungarian presidency’s performance is not very shining. Again, it is primarily due to the internal environment, the domestic situation and also to the kind of lack of interest of the Hungarian political elite for EU business.
I think that what could be a distinct point is the Polish Presidency: the presidency of a state that is sufficiently large, sufficiently ambitious and has a sufficiently stable government and no real inter institutional tensions, that is to say no real war between the President and the Prime minister. A country that also has some ideas on what to do, some settled priorities. So we will see during the next semester! The Polish could turn again the Presidency into an important player and then it would be up to all the next presidencies to prove it will be. However, if the Polish fail to be active and a visible Presidency, I think it won’t ever be again. If Polish fail, the rotating Presidency is doomed in a general way: it will be there, existing, but not really as a serious player, only as a technical administrator.
And one thing we don’t know yet is, of course, how the rotating presidency, which is a standard institution, will coexist with those kinds of “strange” presidencies of Eurozone and all new EU initiatives. It is, of course, very difficult to know as not all countries are involved; but again, in my opinion, Poland will be an interesting test.
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Source photo : Ivo Slosarcik pour Nouvelle Europe