French priorities: arousing some suspicion, but still leaving room for cooperation – especially in energy policy

Institute of International Relations

Overall, the strategy of the Czech government towards France and its priorities consisted of acknowledging the differences between the two (quite openly), followed by tough bargaining without superfluous political, ideological and emotional attacks on French positions and priorities, as well as without the demonstration of discrepancies. Czech representatives say that it is quite legitimate to have different visions and opinions (for example on Common Agricultural Policy). On the other side, negotiations are needed in order to ensure a certain coherence, to ensure that the consecutive presidencies do not move from one extreme to another. Czech officials acknowledged the (natural) differences between France and the Czech Republic and tried to find balance between them or find issue linkages.
French priorities largely concur with the attitudes of main opposition party on the Czech political scene – Social Democrats (ČSSD) – towards the European integration. Czech Social Democrats particularly agree with French attitudes towards common foreign, security and defence policy (Europe as a global actor), energy policy and as well as economic policy (European social model). Czech social democrats heavily criticised the ODS-led government (ODS is the Civic Democratic Party) for the content of priorities for the Czech presidency. Lubomír Zaorálek (ČSSD, shadow foreign minister) argues that the Czech Republic is on a collision course with France because of the discrepancy or even outright clash between the priorities of Czech and French Presidencies. He blames the government for ignoring the ČSSD as the main opposition party during the preparation of Czech priorities, but also for ignoring topics and agendas, which resonate in Europe and which, were picked up by France (common foreign, security and defence policy, migration etc.).[1]
While the Czech government, negotiating with France over the content of a joint 18-month programme, refrained from public criticism of French priorities, Czech president Václav Klaus could not resist the temptation to openly express his misgivings. He expects great pressure towards the EU “à la France”. He argues that Czech attitude is necessarily different, and therefore Czechs should ensure that the EU does not move in a direction where France pushes – in a direction foreshadowed by the rejected Lisbon Treaty.[2]
Czech political scene expects the French EU-Presidency to be very active. Those who do not share France’s vision of Europe (Czech president, parts of ODS) are afraid that France’s activism may push the EU harshly and arrogantly in a direction they deem incorrect (European defence, Lisbon Treaty). Officials, diplomats and more pragmatic politicians from eurosceptic Civic Democratic Party (those who sit in the government or in the European Parliament) acknowledge that there are differences between Czech and French priorities. But the ongoing discussions and bargaining with France left rather optimistic atmosphere and they seem to believe that French activism will be diverted to policies and agendas where French and Czech priorities match most (energy policy). And then there is the main opposition party (ČSSD), which sees hardly any overlap between Czech and French priorities. Social Democrats welcome French activism in areas such as common foreign policy and defence. But at the same time they argue that, because of a huge gap between French policies and the positions adopted by the current Czech government, the Czech Republic is heading towards a collision with France (and her activism in areas such as foreign and defence policies).
The inclusion of defence policy among French priorities is hailed by the Social Democrats. In line with French arguments, Czech Social Democrats argue that defence is a key issue of today’s European Union. Defence is something that concerns the European public much more than for example, institutional reform. Social Democrats and the Green Party (which forms the government together with ODS and the Christian Democrats, KDU-ČSL) support the strengthening of the EU’s role on the global stage, even though the Green Party expressed concern from the “militarization of the EU”.
For the ODS, European defence is an extremely sensitive issue. It clashes with the Civic Democrat’s ideas and priorities in several aspects. For the ODS, foreign and defence policy traditionally form the core of national sovereignty and therefore, any communitarisation of these agendas (qualified majority voting, European foreign minister, supranational agencies) would be hardly acceptable. Secondly, the concept of the EU as a global political actor with defence capabilities would lead to “fortress Europe”, rather than to more open and liberal Europe favoured by the Civic Democrats. Last but not least, they perceive the common foreign and security policy or a defence policy as a tool in the hands of nation states, not as a manifestation of some European interest.
According to Civic Democrats, a common foreign policy at this moment simply does not exist,[3] it is an unachievable chimera.[4] If there are any EU activities (political or military actions) on the global stage, ODS tends to treat them as a reflection of the interests of the most powerful EU members, such as France or Germany. Since these countries (and old EU members generally) often succumb to anti-American moods in their populations, the “European influence” on the global stage tends to weaken transatlantic relations. Even though ODS greeted the pro-American turn of French President Sarkozy, it remains cautious towards his plans for Europe as a global political actor. To sum up, Civic Democrats do not believe in the success of a common foreign and security policy or defence policy and, at the same time, they oppose institutional changes in these areas (such as the introduction of qualified majority voting), because it would weaken small states and deprive them of key aspects of national sovereignty.
The Czech government is aware of certain incompatibilities between French and Czech priorities. Tensions were caused by different attitudes towards the EU enlargement. The negotiations were tough, but both sides were eager to come up with some agreement regarding the issue. Nevertheless, as can be seen from the current exchange between French President Sarkozy and Czech officials regarding the ratification of Lisbon Treaty, the deal between France and the Czech Republic in favour of enlargement is far from secure.[5] In fact, the Lisbon Treaty constitutes a crucial component of many tacit or explicit deals on the European and domestic (Czech) levels. “Enlargement for Lisbon” is one of them. The French President indicated he would block future enlargement of the EU if the Lisbon Treaty were not ratified. On the other side, the Czech ODS-led government treats the Lisbon Treaty as a compromise and concession for enlargement.[6] Czech government officials also try to link the issues of EU enlargement and the introduction of immigration policy, arguing that these two priorities of the Czech Republic and France are not incompatible.[7]
Generally speaking, the original project of the Mediterranean Union was not received warmly,[8] and the Czech Republic adopted a cautious position. In line with Germany’s objections, Czech officials warned against priorities focused only on one part of Europe. The logic of the original plan for the Mediterranean Union (i.e. Mediterranean Union consisting of southern EU members and southern neighbours) was deemed dangerous. It was argued that such a plan would threaten the coherence of the EU – with this logic in mind, we may end up with Baltic Union, Black Sea Union etc.[9] Simultaneously, Czech diplomacy feared that the French initiative would be used as leverage against further EU enlargement and that the Mediterranean Union would be financed at the expenses of EU’s policy towards Eastern Europe and Balkan.[10]

The Common Agricultural Policy and the interrelated issue of budget reform are areas where Czech officials and politicians openly admit the clash of interests. The Czech perception is that “France is rather interested in evolutionary changes”.[11] But the Czech Republic wants more profound changes, including the reduction of direct payments to farmers and the liberalization of global trade with agricultural products. The reform should not end up in decreasing the subsidies for bigger farmers. Such a measure would hurt the Czech agricultural sector, dominated by bigger farms.[12] Simultaneously, the safety of food imported into the EU must be secured.[13] The Czech Republic argues that the EU should put more money into projects that make the Union more competitive (e.g. science and technology). In contrast to common foreign and defence policy or energy policy, France has no real ‘soul mates’ on the Czech political scene that would welcome her plans in the spheres of agriculture and budget. Despite the discrepancies between the Czech and French opinions on the reform of Common Agricultural Policy, Czech officials remain optimistic for the next round of negotiations with France.[14]
Energy security is an agenda where France’s views and the official Czech position match the most. The Czech Republic prioritizes the issues of energy security and self-sufficiency, and in spite of the fact that the Green Party sits in government; the attitude of the Czech Republic towards nuclear energy is friendly. Within the EU, the Czech Republic is a member of the ‘pro-nuclear club’ led by France. The Czech supporters of the utilization of nuclear energy (mainly from ODS) also played the same card as France did: they argued that nuclear energy is a solution not only to the problem of security of energy supplies, but also to the threat of global warming.[15] Nuclear energy (as a ‘low-emission’ source) is thought to be a better solution than inefficient renewable resources, for which the Czech Republic does not even have predisposition.[16] Moreover, energy policy is one of the very few areas where the attitudes of the main governing party (Civic Democrats) and largest opposition party (Social Democrats) are in agreement.[17]
Similarly to France, energy security is high on the European agenda of the Czech Republic and represents one of the priorities for Czech Presidency. The public debate on the energy security of the Czech Republic and the EU as a whole is burgeoning. The supporters of nuclear energy are gaining the upper hand within this debate. At the beginning of July, an independent commission led by the president of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic released part of their work on the energy report. The preliminary report is giving a green light to expanding the nuclear power station at Temelín, causing a deep friction within the government.
Discussions about the European External Action Service have been overshadowed by the imminent issues of the future of the Lisbon Treaty and the Czech EU Presidency
Before the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland, Czech politicians nourished the idea that the Czech Republic would have a strong say in the decision who will occupy the key posts established by the Lisbon Treaty (especially the President of European Council and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy).[18] Nevertheless, concrete suggestions for personalities suitable for these posts were not voiced. The only exception was words of support for the candidature of Tony Blair for the President of European Council.[19] If Tony Blair chose to run for High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy instead (as some speculations suggest), he would also have support from the Czech side.
While the post of the Union Minister for Foreign Affairs, proposed by the rejected Constitutional Treaty, and the new post of the High Representative were publicly debated, the European External Action Service (EEAS) remains the topic of closed expert and academic discussions. The preferences towards the EEAS emerge only slowly and the Czech Republic adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Moreover, since the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty is uncertain, one can expect that the debate about the Czech position towards the EEAS will give way to more urgent topics: the future of the Lisbon Treaty. After the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, the Czech Republic does not have to bother its head with the selection of appropriate persons for the post of the High Representative and the topic of EEAS will probably be sidelined as well.
The government is rather hesitant about the EEAS and its prospects. Nevertheless, there are several arguments why a small country such as the Czech Republic should actively take part in the discussions and promote the establishment of the EEAS. The Service may increase the efficiency of the Czech foreign service. The EEAS, in which the Czech Republic will participate, will allow the Czech Republic to rationalize the network of Czech missions abroad by reducing the number of embassies.[20]
The Czech Republic will opt for narrowing the scope of the tasks of the EEAS. The European Commission proved to be an effective administrator of the enlargement agenda, European Neighbourhood Policy and the development agenda. Moreover, policies pursued by the Commission in these agendas are mostly in line with Czech preferences. On the contrary, the priorities and positions of the High Representative (and thus the EEAS) are difficult to foresee. If the broader model was realised and the EEAS took over more tasks from Commission, the Czech Republic might lose one of its allies on the European level without gaining new one. Last, but not least, ODS strongly opposed the idea of a EU foreign minister. It may block the establishment of a stronger EEAS for the same reason, thus stronger “European diplomacy” would endow the EU with state-like qualities. On the other side, one may expect a positive reception from Social Democrats and other pro-European parties (the Green Party and Christian Democrats). But as we mentioned earlier, even though the proposals for a EU foreign minister and a High Representative attracted substantial attention from Czech politicians, EEAS is not publicly discussed. EEAS remains the topic of a few involved diplomats and experts and the attitudes of political parties and politicians can only be estimated on the basis of their attitudes towards European integration generally and with common foreign policy in particular.

[1] Otázky Václava Moravce: Blíží se předsednictví ČR v EU (Questions of Václav Moravec: Czech Presidency in the EU is approaching), Czech television (channels ČT1 and ČT24), 4 February 2008, available at: (last accessed 14 July 2008).

[2] ”Očekávám velký tlak na budování EU à la France. Náš pohled je nutně jiný a proto musíme usilovat o to, aby se vývoj v EU neubíral směrem, který tlačí Francie a který předurčuje odmítnutá Lisabonská smlouva.” (I expect great pressure on the construction of the EU à la France. Our attitude is necessarily different and therefore we should ensure that the EU does not move in a direction where France pushes – in a direction foreshadowed by the rejected Lisbon Treaty). Rozhovor prezidenta republiky pro deník Lidové noviny o Lisabonské smlouvě (Interview with the president of the Czech Republic for Lidove noviny about Lisbon treaty), Lidove noviny, 3 July 2008.

[3] “Vždyť společná zahraniční politika neexistuje!” See: Mirek Topolánek: Cukr a bič pro Blízký východ (Carrot and Stick for the Middle East), Mladá fronta DNES, 26 March 2008, available at: (last access: 14 July 2008).

[4] “[…] tolik vzývaná společná zahraniční politika EU se […] jeví jako nedosažitelná chimera.” See: Jan Zahradil: Předsednictví EU prezident obohatí (The president will enrich the presidency of the EU), Mladá fronta DNES, 18 February 2008, available at: (last access: 14 July 2008).

[5] No EU expansion without Treaty, Sarkozy warns, EurActiv, 20 June 2008, available at: (last access: 14 July 2008).

[6] “Je tady Lisabonská smlouva, určitý kompromis nebo daň za rozšíření.” See: Alexandr Vondra: Odpovědnost poneseme až do konce (Interview with Alexandr Vondra: We bear responsibility till the end), Respekt, 30 June 2008, available at: (last access: 14july 2008).

[7] Alexandr Vondra o přípravě předsednictví: S Francií máme dobré vztahy (Alexandr Vondra about the preparation of presidency: We have good relations with France),, 18 February 2008.

[8] ČR i Slovensko chtějí prohloubit spolupráci EU se státy na východ (Czech Republic and Slovakia want to strengthen cooperation between EU and eastern states), Czech news agency, 26 May 2008.

[9] Alexandr Vondra o přípravě předsednictví: S Francií máme dobré vztahy (Alexandr Vondra about the preparation of presidency: We have good relations with France),, 18. February 2008.

[10] V Paříži vznikla Unie pro Středomoří, připojilo se i Česko (Union for Mediterranean was established in Paris, the Czech Republic joined),, 13 July 2008, available at: (last access: 14 July 2008).

[11] Vondra: ČR chce při vedení EU dokončit liberalizaci trhu (Vondra: Czech Republic wants to finalize the liberalization of common market when presiding the EU), Czech news agency, 1 April 2008.

[12] See also the previous issue of EU-27 Watch No. 6, p. 166.

[13] Priority předsednictví: ČR a Švédsko chápou reformu zemědělské politiky podobně (Priorities of the Presidency: Czech Republic and Sweden perceive the reform of agricultural policy similarly), EurActiv, 5 March 2008, available at: (last access: 14 July 2008).

[14] Ivo Hlaváč: Health check je pro liberalizaci SZP nezbytný (Health check is necessary for the liberalisation of CAP), EurActiv, 27 June 2008, available at: (last access: 14 July 2008).

[15] Czech Prime Minister tells European Nuclear Energy Forum: nuclear power will help us meet set targets, Radio Praha, 23 May 2008, available at: (last access: 14 July 2008).

[16] Czech Republic’s potential for hydroenergetics is quite low, we do not have much sunlight for solar power stations and also the potential for biofuels is quite limited. See Alexandr Vondra o přípravě předsednictví: S Francií máme dobré vztahy (Alexandr Vondra about the preparation of presidency: We have good relations with France),, 18. February 2008.

[17] Pavel Telička, Lubomír Zaorálek (ČSSD) and Jan Zahradil (ODS) in Studio 24, Czech television (channel ČT24), 1 July 2008.

[18] Jan Zahradil (MEP, foreign affairs expert of the Civic Democratic Party), quoted in Výhledy: Lisabonské smlouvy vidí čeští europoslanci dost odlišně (Czech MEPs see the outlooks of the Lisbon Treaty differently), Czech News Agency, 20 April 2008.

[19] Alexandr Vondra: Blaira bych zařadil mezi nadějné kandidáty (I would place Blair among hopefuls), Euro, 21. January 2008.

[20] Vít Střítecký: “Jak dál s ‘evropskou diplomacií’?” (How to carry on with “European diplomacy”?), Policy Paper, Institute of International Relations, Prague, March 2008.