Fiala faces a green “battle” with MEPs. The star hour comes in October

The Czech Presidency of the European Union is just getting started. As early as Wednesday, Prime Minister Petr Fiala (ODS) is facing a “battle” with MEPs in Strasbourg over the agenda of Czech leadership in Europe.

The brightest moment of the next six months is likely to take place on October 7. This is the plan for the summit in Prague. It is not yet clear how “big” the event will be.

All the leaders of the 27 will certainly come, and the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyi, has also been invited. And it is even possible that it would be his first exit from the war-torn country – then it would really be the world’s “event number 1”. However, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could also attend, as EU relations with non-member European countries are to be resolved in Prague in October.

However, the EU presidency will also greatly influence Czech politics. Prime Minister Fiala will be under pressure not to forget what is bothering the domestic voters for world problems. Finding the right balance will not be easy.

Violet doesn’t like green?

The presidency started on Friday, July 1 in Litomyšl, but Prime Minister Fiala awaits his presidential “baptism” this week on Wednesday in Strasbourg.

While the majority of the country will be enjoying the holiday summer break at home, the prime minister will present the plans of the Czech presidency to the MEPs. And it can get pretty hot in there. It is not just about delivering a prepared speech. When the then Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek (ODS) represented the Czech presidency in the European Parliament in 2009, he faced quite tough questions from the MEPs – for example, regarding the Eurosceptic scenes of the then head of state Václav Klaus.

Influential government MEP Alexandr Vondra (ODS) foresees a “purple” moderate speech. “I expect factions from the political center to the right to be satisfied, those from the center to the left, we’ll see. The main task now is to maintain unity at the European level, at the same time I do not expect the prime minister to back down from his principles,” he told Seznam Zprávám.

In any case, it is quite a contact discipline. When French President Emmanuel Macron discussed his presidency with MEPs this January, it turned into a heated debate in which he mainly faced his French opposition.

After all, its Czech vice-president Dita Charanzová, who is also a prominent representative of the opposition movement ANO, complained about the lack of communication between the Czech government and the European Parliament.

“The Czech Republic takes over the presidency at an extremely difficult time. He will have to deal with both the ongoing war in Ukraine and the economic effects of the war, including rising energy and food prices. Europe is looking for ways to become energy independent from Russia on the one hand and to fulfill the Green Deal on the other. So I expect a substantive debate about how the Czech presidency will approach these current issues and what plan it will present,” she told Seznam Zprávám at Wednesday’s meeting.

Prime Minister Petr Fiala with the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

What questions can Fiala face? The lukewarm attitude of the Czech presidency to the “green” dimension of energy can be conflicting on the floor of the European Parliament – Prague now wants to focus on the urgent goal of cutting itself off from Russian fossil fuels. After Fial’s speech, a vote will be held in Strasbourg on whether nuclear will be counted as an ecological source of energy. “If the objection presented by the Green faction and some anti-nuclear activists from other political parties were to be approved, it would be a blow to the outgoing French presidency and the incoming Czech presidency,” says Vondra.

There is also a lot of talk in Brussels about the close relationship between Prague and Warsaw, which is in dispute with the European Commission due to the condition of the Polish judiciary, which, according to Brussels, does not meet European standards.

The relationship between the Czech Republic and Hungary also raises questions, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is dividing the Union the most even in the era of the war in Ukraine with his tepid attitudes towards the country facing Russian aggression. At the same time, Fial’s government considers strengthening democracy as one of the priorities of the presidency. The Czech prime minister can be asked about all this in Strasbourg.

“The real test of how serious the country is about strengthening democratic institutions will be how it deals with problematic cases within the EU itself, such as the Polish judicial reform or the restriction of media freedom in Hungary or Greece,” writes the influential Brussels website Politico, for example.

Czechs under the microscope

As for the program, it is not just about the summit, in the Czech Republic the ministers of the twenty-seventh will open doors, each resort will have its own meeting. For example, the ministers of defense and foreign affairs will meet in Prague for their “ministry” and the EU “foreign minister” Josep Borrell, a man with the official title of high representative of the EU for foreign and security policy, will come to see them.

These events will take place in the Congress Center in Prague. This is a change compared to 2009, when the twenty-seventh ministers went to the regions for meetings, which at the same time made the entire presidency more expensive.

The presidency of the EU mainly means hundreds of meetings, conferences or working groups, which will be chaired by Czech politicians, officials and experts, most of which will take place in the Czech Republic. The whole operation is not cheap, the presidency’s budget is currently 2.25 billion crowns.

“If the Czechs somehow meet the presidency in person, it’s probably because there will be more interest in the Czech Republic for half a year. More interesting scientists will arrive here for conferences, more interesting thinkers for debates, maybe even the Ukrainian president. I myself have noticed that there is suddenly more interest in the performances of Czechs and Czechs at international debates,” says Nikola Hořejš, director of the project Our interests in the EU and STEM analyst.

A look at the official calendar of the presidency shows that the topics of the presidential meetings will be really broad – from taxes to the climate and children’s rights to, for example, gender mainstreaming. The program often features defense topics – whether it’s hybrid threats or the fight against terrorism, which is apparently related to the Czech Republic’s efforts to profile itself as a security player under Fial’s government.

A “high-level” conference on Ukraine is also planned for the end of the holidays – it is supposed to be a donor event. Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský (Pirates) has been talking about it for a long time, and diplomacy is in charge of it.

As for the program of the presidency, it should be noted that it may change or expand to include other interesting events. For example, in 2009, the most prestigious moment of the Czech premiership at the head of the EU – the holding of the EU-US summit with the participation of the then new American President Barack Obama – was decided only at the last minute. When the event took place at the beginning of April, it was under very atypical circumstances – Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek was already ruling in resignation after the overthrow of the cabinet, mainly at the initiative of the opposition led by the head of the ČSSD Jiří Paroubek and the then president Václav Klaus.

With Babiš in the back

Fial’s government should avoid a similar dramatic scenario this time. It is held in power by a much stronger majority than Topolánek’s cabinet at the time. However, it is already experiencing its first difficulties, in connection with the case of corruption in the Prague transport company.

Fial’s government seems to have been able to quell the interference in the presidency by President Miloš Zeman. After all, she also left in force the agreement of former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš (ANO) that the prestigious Prague summit will take place at the Castle, and the president will thus have the opportunity to say goodbye to politics, at the time when his mandate is coming to an end, in truly world-class style. In 2009, the summit with Obama was held in the Congress Center – just across the river from Hradčany.

But Fiala will be under the pressure of two elections – municipal elections at the end of September, which can be particularly tense for the coalition Pirates and Mayors. The Pirates will need to settle scores from the debacle in the parliamentary elections, and the Mayors may be weakened by the already mentioned Dosimeter case. And for example, the already mentioned highlight of the Czech presidency, i.e. the Prague summit, is planned for perhaps the most sensitive moment of the entire half-year from the point of view of domestic politics – two weeks after the municipal elections in the Czech Republic, when, as a result of their unpredictable results, the governing coalition may experience stormier times. The political situation in the Czech Republic will also be influenced by the ongoing presidential elections in the next six months – especially if Andrej Babiš decides to run, it can be expected that he will become tougher in opposition politics.

However, according to expert Hořejš, the presidency is in many ways a great opportunity for the Czechia. “Czechs suffer from the feeling that we don’t need to be interested in world problems because we have nothing to do with them. According to a survey of older date, we think the least in Europe that we can somehow influence the climate and climate policy. It’s a kind of learned helplessness. And this is precisely where the presidency excels, because we see that the Czech prime minister is “struggling” with world statesmen,” he states, for example.

According to him, it will also be a bonus if it is possible to keep experts and officials with presidential experience in the state administration even after the presidency. “It would be a big boost for the scrapped state administration,” he adds.

And according to Hořejš Češ, how will he feel the presidency most personally? “Cynically, I would say that an ordinary fellow citizen will feel the presidency the most if he will have something to heat the gas boiler in the fall and winter or if he will not be laid off in his job. The Czech government will have to help negotiate energy policy and solidarity between states, although the commission will probably play a major role in this. And the Czech Republic is definitely more interested in securing energy and its price than the Russian invasion,” says the STEM expert.