Analysis: how the Czechs envisage the start of their presidency of the Council of the EU
Euronews correspondent Méabh Mc Mahon reports on her trip to Prague as the Czech Republic takes over the EU Council Presidency from this month.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know” was the repeated answer to my question did you know that the Czechs currently chair the European Union?
I’m in the Letná district of Prague, a trendy neighborhood where, according to Jiri, my local cameraman, “everyone wants to live”.
I meet Mikulas Peksa there, a European legislator mostly spotted in Strasbourg or Brussels, but as it is Friday, the young politician from the Pirate Party is working from home.
He tells me that the Czech presidency will give a big boost to his country, still bruised by the bad press generated by the former prime minister and billionaire, Andrej Babis.
“Usually if you live in a country like Czechia, you expect others like the United States, Germany, France, Russia to decide your fate, and you see the big things in the media , but now it’s the Czechs and our Prime Minister is the one who participates in this theater and it’s really interesting, I would say,” says Peksa.
Most people I talk to about politics, whether local or European, roll their eyes. Their trust in authority seems slim. The former prime minister who was in power from 2017 to 2021 faces charges of EU subsidy fraud involving his farm outside Prague.
When a new coalition was sworn in in December with five parties ranging from conservatives to pirates, they promised to root out corruption.
But on the eve of their EU presidency, a scandal erupted that forced education minister Petr Gazdík to resign.
He was a member of the Movement of Mayors and Independents (STAN), the second largest of the five parties forming the national government coalition.
“The scandal has naturally weakened the STAN party (mayors and independents) a lot, the other parties in the coalition have only been slightly affected, but the coalition government is still holding its own,” Dr. Petr Just from the University tells me. Metropolitan of Prague, the government has a comfortable majority but if STAN withdraws, it would lose this support.
The head of STAN is Vit Rakušan – Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior. I sit down with him for an informal dinner with a few other Brussels-based journalists.
“We have a lot of big problems. Inflation is one of the highest in the EU,” says Rakusan. The former mayor tells me all the topics on his plate for the next six months.
With so much to sort out at home due to rising gas, electricity, water and food prices, how will he have time to run Europe, I wonder, and how do his constituents feel?
“You can feel some disappointment with the EU here,” he says.
“Czech companies, Czechs – they don’t feel the impact on their lives… there are too many rules and too much bureaucracy. It would be easier if we were in the eurozone.”
The Interior Minister said he would try to bring results for citizens at home and abroad, such as Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria joining Schengen.
“The door is still closed and people in these countries are losing hope, they are losing confidence in the EU,” he adds.
Petr Just said that people in general know about the Presidency of the Council of the EU but they do not consider it important.
“This stems from the general approach of Czech society towards the EU, which is quite ‘cold’ and distant. People don’t know much about how the EU works,” adds- he.
The first priority remains Ukraine
Beyond global warming, migration and soaring inflation – the first priority of the Czech Presidency will be Ukraine – trying to stop the war and help those affected.
With similar cultures and languages, the Czech Republic is a first-time host country. More than 300,000 Ukrainians came – mostly women and children.
The dilemma now, I am told, is whether to “integrate them” or simply “adapt them”.
“Ukraine wants them back when it’s safe to return,” Rakusan said, adding that many have found work and learned to speak “because it sounds so much like Ukrainian.”
I visit the Russian Embassy in Prague where the lights are on and there is someone home, but the splendid mansion perched on the edge of a park is surrounded by police tape from when the locals painted the entrance with fake blood.
“After the Russian attack on Ukraine, people started to worry more about defense and security,” Just said, adding that the popularity of NATO membership and the Czech Republic in NATO has grown rapidly since the war in Ukraine.