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The Czech Republic and the Eastern European agenda: many challenges, new opportunities

On July 1st, the Czech Republic took over the Council of the European Union’s presidency. This has happened at a time of enormous pressure, as the union is faced with the Russian war against Ukraine. Czechia’s performance may benefit particularly from a clear consensus when it comes to sanctions on Moscow. Under a responsible leadership, the state may not only help bring an end to the violence in Ukraine but also lead the country closer to the bloc.

August 2, 2022 - Pavel Havlicek - Articles and Commentary

Border sign. Photo: M-SUR / Shutterstock

Just as on January 1st 2009, the Czech EU presidency is once again facing a growing number of crises. Above all, the EU-27 are faced with Russian aggression against Ukraine. During its first EU Council presidency before the Lisbon Treaty, it was the Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek who was forced to negotiate with the Kremlin over a gas dispute with Ukraine. Later, he had to find common ground during yet another escalation between Israel and Palestine. It was the Czech Republic that oversaw the first ever summit of the Eastern Partnership and adoption of the so-called Prague Declaration. This outlined the main features of the EU’s cooperation with six Eastern European countries. Some are now much closer to accession than could have possibly been expected even several months ago.

Looking at the legacy of the previous presidency, it is clear that the Czechs are – once again – standing at a crossroads when it comes to the bloc’s future relations with Eastern Europe. This has mainly concerned Russia but also Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, which have been knocking on the EU’s door for some time. What is different this time though is that Chisinau and Kyiv were recently given candidate status by the EU member states. This has moved them into a new category and reality of relations with the EU.

However, a completely unpredictable and aggressive Russia still remains from 2009. The Kremlin has undermined not only the energy security of Europe but this time is also taking Ukrainian lives on an everyday basis in its attempt to liquidate the Ukrainian statehood. Consequences of the war include rising rates of inflation, high energy prices and costs related to helping Ukrainian refugees. This spiral of problems is likely to really hit European societies in the coming weeks and months. This is why the EU needs to react. The Czech leadership has to help make a positive response a reality.

How can Prague overcome these Eastern challenges?

The Russian war against Ukraine has now moved into its fourth month and has impacted everything on the European continent. It has crushed the belief of some in the West that Russia can become a normal country and a reliable business partner. It has also destroyed the EU’s relations with Moscow, which relied on “selective engagement” as one of its five guiding principles. This is no longer possible as the military conflict still continues.

Instead, the conflict has encouraged EU countries to figure out how to maximise support for Ukraine and its military sector, which is withstanding Russian attempts to destroy the country’s defence system. Another dilemma for most EU members is how far should the bloc go to punish Putin’s regime whilst not completely undermining the economic and energy sustainability of their societies. Finally, the conflict once again opened debate on how to make Europe a secure and stable continent. Of course, the Russian leadership has completely devastated this concept.

As aforementioned, the Russian war ultimately encouraged the EU to acknowledge the long-term aspirations of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to pursue the EU path. The first two countries were given candidate status, while Georgia’s EU aspirations were recognised at the level of the EU-27 leaders. This changes the previous dynamics in these states’ relations with the EU and introduces Chisinau and Kyiv to the prospect of future enlargement. Both states could even overtake several Western Balkan countries in their accession talks. From the union’s point of view, the last European Council conclusions also reintroduced older debate on the “Wider Europe” concept, as well as how such geopolitical ideas fit into the current Eastern Partnership and enlargement policies.

Among these challenges, there are also future opportunities that could finally result in a new geopolitical reality. The war in Ukraine could result in a final freezing of relations with Russia and the promotion of an Energy Union that would not be dependent on the Kremlin’s energy resources. This came as a particular challenge in the context of maintaining Nord Stream 1. After all, disagreement resulted in a substantial decrease in Russian gas supplies for a number of member states, while others – including Poland, Bulgaria and the Netherlands – were cut off completely.

Migration and the flow of refugees from Ukraine, as well as environmental issues related to the war, will require EU member states to reach a consensus on future action. These topics and crises will also play a key role in the Czech EU presidency. The first informal EU Council meetings clearly showed that there is a general appetite to invite partners from Ukraine and Moldova to tackle the crisis together.

On the future of the Eastern Partnership

One of the crucial questions facing the Czech EU presidency is the future of the EU’s Eastern policy. While the Eastern Partnership is both a Polish-Swedish project and child of the Czech presidency of 2009, there were numerous voices early this year declaring the policy dead or no longer relevant. Crucial challenges in this context involve more than just the Russian aggression against Ukraine. For example, other issues include Belarus’s previous suspension of activities, the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, and the new candidate status of Moldova and Ukraine.

All these factors and various others concerning future cooperation with the EU’s external partners have placed additional pressure on the already squeezed Eastern Partnership. Many of its traditional defenders, including the Czech Republic, have subsequently started to question the effectiveness of the policy.

However, as the European Council meeting on June 23rd and 24th came closer, it became clear that most EU members and institutions were backtracking from their previous radical positions. Instead, they started to look for compromise options and combinations of new opportunities within existing frameworks of cooperation. According to many voices in Brussels, Ukraine and Moldova’s candidate status was also part of this compromise when the Wider Europe idea found its way into the Council’s conclusions.

For the Czech EU presidency, this brings an additional challenge in mediating debate between the friends of the Eastern Partnership and those traditionally lukewarm EU members that would accept downplaying the policy and/or freezing future enlargement. It is going to be crucial to accommodate both the European political community and Eastern Partnership policy. They should remain compatible and mutually reinforcing.

In that regard, the Eastern Partnership certainly has a key part to play in EU policies, especially when it comes to the EU’s complex approach to the six countries. This is now needed more than ever due to the number of challenges that the region faces. At the same time, it is necessary to carefully balance the multilateral and bilateral aspects of the policy. These will need to go through another process of revision in order to better reflect the new position of Ukraine and Moldova. The door should also be kept open for Georgia.

As a result, it will be essential to explain the added value of the policy. This includes the initiative’s complexity, established institutional set-up, and work on multiple levels from parliaments to civil society. The partnership also offers opportunities for socialisation, exchanging best practice, and identifying new and creative solutions at different levels of decision-making. Even if the policy does not always promote such benefits, it is clear that the countries of the “Associated Trio” have many common problems and shared challenges that might be tackled best through close cooperation.

On the enlargement track, it is necessary to recalibrate the current approach as it has stalled and not motivated individual countries to pursue reforms. Indeed, the status quo has often been defended by EU members that have tried to capitalise on their superior position and role as veto players. This is clear with regards to Bulgaria. On the other hand, it is necessary to acknowledge the new reality in which there has been renewed activity within the Eastern European countries. Many are pursuing a merit-based and open path towards the EU.

Finally, the European (geo-)political community should stand somehow separate from the Eastern Partnership and Czech EU presidency. It should reinforce them but also offer additional resources and cooperation opportunities to a large pool of countries located around the European Union. However, the Czechs need to make sure that this is not going to be the main outcome of the other two processes and a de facto alternative to both.

The Czech Republic’s next steps

The Czech EU presidency has a rich programme prepared for the Eastern Partnership. This will start with the upcoming “Gymnich meeting” of foreign ministers in August and continue with a large Ukraine Forum discussion. The autumn months will likely focus on issues related to the Eastern Partnership, as well as a high-level Business Forum and conference dedicated to the reconstruction of Ukraine. Apart from this, the Czechs also plan to showcase the EU’s support for democratic Belarus and their willingness to find new ways to work with the country’s opposition.

The first steps towards the organisation of the Eastern Partnership Youth Conference, as well as an invitation to Ukraine and Moldova to attend informal meetings of EU ministers, send a promising sign to the Eastern European countries. This is especially true regarding those who are willing to cooperate more closely with the EU.

At the same time, it will be crucial to sustain this momentum and continue prioritising the Eastern European agenda during the crucial months of autumn. The EU is likely to spend this time in crisis mode as it deals with energy issues and a potential escalation in the Russian war against Ukraine. Related pressures also include the overall socio-economic situation and the long-term hosting of Ukrainian refugees.

While the plans may look good on paper, there are still many unknown variables. New developments in the Russian war against Ukraine could also threaten neighbouring Moldova. Belarus is already de facto occupied by Russian military forces and Georgia could also be subject to pressure. The EU needs to find the willingness and unity to respond to this regional crisis and engage with local partners to increase their resilience in relation to Russian pressure.

Only this way is it possible to prevent the worst and for the Czechs to hand over the EU presidency to the Swedes in a better state than they found it.

This article is published as part of a project to promote independent digital media in Central and Eastern Europe funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and coordinated by Notes from Poland. You can subscribe to the newsletter of the project or tune in to the VoiCEE podcast

Pavel Havlicek is a Research Fellow of the Association for International Affairs’ Research Centre. His research focus is on Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine and Russia, and the Eastern Partnership. He also deals with questions of strategic communication and disinformation as well as democratisation and civil society support.

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