Prague seeks continuity in upcoming presidency of the European Union

From the 1st July, the Czech Republic will take over chairmanship of the EU Council from France, giving it responsibility over hosting meetings and determining the agenda of the EU Council of Ministers until the end of 2022.

The beginning of July will mark only the second time that the Czech Republic has chaired the EU Council, with its first presidency in 2009 coming only five years after acceding to the EU. At that time, domestic political debates and priorities helped shape the Czech’s agenda. This time around, however, it seems that the next six months will be defined less by efforts to promote the country’s priorities and more by outward-looking, diplomatic activities.

Nevertheless, the presidency is awaited with much interest by the international media, since it represents an opportunity for the Czech Republic to strengthen its position within the European family. Moreover, since the UK left the European Union, the Czech Republic has been looking out for new partners in Western Europe. Undoubtably, chairing the European Council will represent the ideal opportunity to lay the foundations for new and more lasting diplomatic ties. With a few weeks to go before the handover, the main priorities for the Czech presidency are, unsurprisingly, to start rebuilding Ukraine, improve on energy security, address concerns over the Western Balkans, make progress on the common defense policy, and issues relating to cybersecurity with, in particular, attention paid to electronic identification.

A tricky international context

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February triggered a series of events that made changes in the agenda set by the three consecutive presidencies of France, Czech Republic and Sweden inevitable, including when it comes to the rules of the Recovery Plan.

Indeed, the impact of the war in Ukraine has shifted the focus in Europe to crisis management and future reconstruction. In the Czech Republic, 300,000 Ukrainian refugees, the majority of whom are women and children, have arrived since February. This represents a novel challenge for the country, which is not used to managing migratory flows on its soil. Prague has to organise housing and schooling, while at the same time losing a valuable Ukrainian workforce, as the men have left the country to join the ranks of the Kiev army.

But aside from dealing with the domestic implications of the war, the Czech Republic will therefore have to lead the European work on the subject, with the ambition of reaching a common position on Russia and Ukraine.

Several medium and long-term challenges

Despite the trio of presidencies committing itself to making headway on several issues aimed at promoting Europe’s interests and values in the world, it will undoubtedly be necessary to tailor this one-and-a-half-year programme to the current geopolitical context.  The initial objective of organising an ambitious industrial policy, which was aimed at reducing the Union’s dependence on third countries, will now have to take into account the very real challenges caused by disruptions of global supply chains linked to COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine. At the same time, the plan to make European industry more sustainable, greener, globally competitive and resilient in the medium and long term will undoubtedly be driven by the need to transform existing infrastructures, particularly in terms of access to energy.

Shifting priorities

A feature of rotating presidencies is that a long-term programme, often drawn up over the course of year or more, must be reconciled with short-term imperatives. For instance, in 2008, the French Presidency had to adapt its programme to deal with the financial crisis and the Georgian conflict. Similarly, the 2022 presidency had to deal with the consequences of the COVID crisis and the war in Ukraine, while at the same time trying to advance a packed legislative and regulatory agenda.

Digital Single Market, Energy and Climate Measures, Common Defence Policy… Progress has not been lacking when it comes to major initiatives negotiated by the European Parliament and the Commission. For the Czech Republic, the Portuguese presidency of 2021 seems to represent the standard to be met. Aware that European leadership remains shaped by the Franco-German alliance, Prague is positioning itself as a mediator between Paris and Berlin at a time when key issues such as energy security, which have been brought to the forefront by the conflict in Ukraine, are causing concern among the 27 Member States.

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