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The New Czech Government and the Future of Prague-Brussels Relations

Martin Hrabálek & Ondřej Mocek (Mendel University) 

The parliamentary elections in the Czech republic held on 8th and 9th October brought a rather unexpected result. The coalition of three parties SPOLU (meaning “together“ in Czech), consisting of the Civic Democratic Party, Christian and Democratic Union – Czechoslovak People’s Party and TOP 09 won the election by a small margin ahead of ANO 2011, the largest party of the withdrawing government. Together with another coalition of Mayors and Independents and the Pirate party, SPOLU will form a government with a comfortable majority of 108 seats in the Chamber of Deputies of 200 members. All parties have already signed a coalition agreement. On November 28, and Czech president Miloš Zeman appointed Petr Fiala (leader of the Civic Democratic Party) as the Prime Minister. This new government means a significant shift from the current one in many areas, the European Union notwithstanding.

So what does it mean for the Czech position in the European Union and Czech relations in Brussels? First of all, Czechia would get rid of the conflict of interest issue of the former prime minister Andrej Babiš. Babiš is both head of the ANO 2011 movement and a billionaire with most of his activities in the agricultural sector with his AGROFERT holding. Although he had to transfer his property into a trust under the new Czech legislation, this was a rather instrumental move, with Babiš stil being the main beneficiary of AGROFERT that is a large receiver of European public funding. This situation was scrutinized by the European Commission and the European Parliament recently, both stating a conflict of interest. Babiš denied these claims, yet the European Union warned that his conflict of interest might have an impact on resources sent to Czechia from the Recovery Plan for Europe. With Babiš no longer being Prime Minister (neither part of the government as none of the other parties want to cooperate with him), this particular problem will be solved.

The Czech Republic has long been perceived in Brussels as a troublemaker. Ministers often do not attach as much importance to the European agenda as it deserves and often leave issues to the last minute. Although Brussels is thus open to negotiations and the Czech administration would certainly be able to negotiate things, thanks to late instructions, they do not have the time or the chance. Typically, Brussels was often called a “bad guy” by the Babiš government. Perhaps this approach will change. The change of government from populism to standard political governance brings hope that the political process in the European Union will also be better understood by the Czech executive.

The big challenge is also the forthcoming Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU between July-December 2022. Andrej Babiš did not attach much importance to the presidency, and the Czech Republic thus largely underestimated the entire preparation. The new government plans to establish a new post of Minister for European affairs. Firstly, this is because of the Council presidency and, secondly, it is an effort to give importance to the European agenda and to improve the interconnection of European processes through ministries and the government office. The Czech Republic already had a Minister for European Affairs during the first Czech Presidency of the Council in 2009. After that the position was abolished but it would now be restored after 12 years. Mikuláš Bek (not a party member), former head of Masaryk University and currently member of the Senate, is the proposed Minister for European Affairs. In combination with the proposed Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky (Pirates), we can expect a significant shift in relations, away from Russia and China and, conversely, a greater move towards the European Union and NATO, as both have openly pro-European stances.

The future Prime Minister Petr Fiala himself will play an important role in the Czech Republic’s relationship with the EU. Petr Fiala is a professor of political science, a former rector of Masaryk University and also a former Minister of education. In his scientific texts, he critically addressed some features of the European Union, yet he could rather be considered a reformist than a pure critic of European integration. With this expertise, the functioning of the EU should not be surprising to him. The new government, including the Prime Minister, would thus not have to see the EU as an enemy but as an opportunity to seize.

What is unlikely are further steps closer towards the economic and monetary union. While most of the parties in the next government would support the euro, the Civic Democrats that will hold the office of Prime Minister, are long-term opponents of Czechia joining the common currency. Another reason for not making further steps towards euro is the current state of Czech public finances. The budget deficit is set to be 7,5 percent of the GDP in 2021, much of that structural rather than related to COVID spending. The current plan is that in 2024 the deficit would still be around 4 percent (although the newly forming government is sending signals it would try to find more savings) and Czechia would not fulfil the convergence criteria for adopting the euro.

What remains in question are the relations of the Visegrad Four with Brussels. Babiš was politically closer to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán than any of the leaders of the parties that will form the new government. The internal consistency of the group, that is often perceived as problematic in Brussels, might be significantly lower with the new Czech government.  

In conclusion, what is sure is that the relations of the Czech republic with Brussels is likely to be different and the present authors hope they will improve. The election programs of the future governing parties promised to reform public policy, including relations with the EU. Let’s hope so.

 

Martin Hrabálek currently works as an assisting professor at the Faculty of Regional Development and International Studies of Mendel University. He also gives lectures externally at the Faculty of Social Studies of Masaryk University. He gaind his master degrees at Faculty of Social Studies of Masaryk University (major International Relations – European Studies) and Faculty of Law of Masaryk University (major Law). He gained his Ph.D. at the Faculty of Social Studies of Masaryk University, major European Studies. He specializes in Latin American Affairs, his main area of focus are security issues in the region and integration processes in the region.

Ondřej Mocek is a Research Fellow of AMO Research Center, his research focuses on the institutional aspects of the European integration. He is an assistant professor at Mendel University in Brno. He got Ph.D. degree in European Studies at Masaryk University in 2016. He also completed there his Master’s degree (European studies) in 2011 and bachelor degree (International relations and European studies) in 2009.

The views expressed in this blog reflect the position of the author(s) and not necessarily that of the Brexit Institute Blog.

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