2016: All-Pervasive Foreign Policy
In a parliamentary debate last November, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka noted that all-pervasive foreign policy now affects what is happening in the Czech Republic more than ever before. In doing so, he aptly identified a trend we had encountered in 2016. The referendum on the UK’s departure from the EU, the rise of right-wing populist political parties (not just) in Europe, Russia’s disinformation campaign, and the uncertainty associated with Donald Trump’s election as the US president created the most difficult international situation faced by Czech diplomacy since Czech independence. Differing views on the direction of foreign policy – regardless of whether the topic was migration or relations with China – divided politicians and society on more than one occasion. The fact that foreign-policy issues had resonated on this scale
is also illustrative of their ever-increasing spillover into the domestic environment.
Nevertheless, though dynamic events abroad raised debate on foreign policy, they left no mark on the status quo in the Czech Republic. The consequences of the drawnout war in Syria, with an influx of refugees, was experienced by the Greeks, Italians, and our neighbours in Germany, but not by the Czechs. Unlike the Ukrainians, we did not have to endure armed conflict on our territory, nor was the Czech Republic among the string of European countries targeted for terrorist attacks. In fact, judging by macroeconomic indicators, we have thrived – measured by gross domestic product (GDP), the Czech economy continued to grow in 2016 and the government was able to boast the highest budget surplus since the country’s formation. It was also a relatively tranquil period on the domestic political scene. Despite the diverse and frequently contradictory positions of its members, the government coalition held together to wield a comfortable parliamentary majority and avoided major scandals.
In this introductory chapter, we evaluate the main trends in Czech foreign policy over the past year. Unfortunately, we must point out at the outset that neither the increased attention foreign events received in domestic debate nor the favourable political backdrop were positively reflected in the country’s actions on the international scene in 2016. Some past maladies persisted: opposing voices competed to be heard in foreign policy, with both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs failing to make their mark here forcefully enough. However, two other problems emerged more
prominently than ever before last year. The neglect of key partnerships and alliances, which were in some cases additionally undermined in the pursuit of short-term goals or on account of domestic disputes, laid bare the inability of political representatives to look beyond their term in office in matters of foreign policy, and their political selfabsorption. This could be seen in Czech policy towards the EU, in the approach to Germany, the Visegrad Group (V4), and eastern partners. The domestic reverberations
of international events were rarely reflected in any genuine interest in foreign policy, which, if anything, was once again hostage to political parties’ internal political spats.
Seeking Responses to International Challenges
The liberal international order that provided the Czech Republic with a favourable environment for its development since the early 1990s, continued to fragment throughout 2016. How did Czech diplomacy seek to influence these developments? And how did it prepare for the equally hectic years to come? These are the questions we asked ourselves against the background of the problems and events requiring Czech attention most in 2016.
One such problem on a European scale was the so-called migration crisis. While the high numbers of refugees headed for Europe was quelled by a series of measures, not least being the agreement the EU struck with Turkey, the actual causes of migration remained. Hence the search for a common European response remained just as acute as it had been in 2015. The Czech Republic was noted for building obstacles rather than offering solutions. The protection of external borders and rejection of relocation quotas continued as the foreign-policy mantra. Although it is apparent the first suggestion does nothing more than shift the entire issue beyond European borders without dealing with the crux of the problem, this solution found common ground among EU Member States. Consequently, the Czech Republic supported the establishment of a new EU border protection agency and the dispatch of Czech police officers to those EU countries most affected by migration. In contrast, the Czech Republic’s demand for the unilateral closure of the Balkan migration route simply compounded the pressure on those Member States and EU institutions negotiating a deal with Turkey, and it was inhumane for refugees confined to overcrowded refugee camps and detention centres. The resistance mounted by the Visegrad Group, including the Czech Republic, to any relocation mechanism whatsoever thwarted attempts to agree on a more comprehensive solution entailing the reform of European asylum and migration policy. Criticism of the migration policy pursued by German Chancellor Angela Merkel by Czech politicians merely highlighted the Czech Republic’s unconstructive approach in an unfortunate light and undermined good mutual relations.
The split between the east and west of the European Union, which began to re-emerge the year before last over diverging views on relocation quotas, was made all the deeper by wrangling on how to approach migration. As the country holding the V4 presidency, the Czech Republic could have become a bridge between the two streams, yet its stance, outlined above, helped draw a thicker dividing line. The negative label slapped on the Visegrad Group, once a symbol of cooperation and the successful transformation of Central Europe, was also due to undermining of the rule of law in Poland and Hungary. Here again, Czech politicians failed to capitalise on their specific position and, above all, on their close ties with colleagues in Warsaw and Budapest, and instead of trying to engage them in a dialogue, merely looked on as events unfolded in both countries. This is despite the fact that maintaining good reputation of the Visegrad Group and, most importantly, a stable democratic neighbourhood should be an intrinsic interest of the Czech Republic.
The June referendum on the UK’s departure from the EU then threw the debate on the future of the integration project to the forefront. Czech diplomacy played animportant role in negotiating a deal between the United Kingdom and the 27 Member States on the new conditions of its membership that would have come into play had the British decided to remain in the Union. The British referendum triggered a reflection process within the EU, though the Czech Republic contributed little of note. Consequently, what particularly stood out was the Prime Minister’s surprising declaration of support for a European army, which was not followed up by any specific proposals. However, the government refused to initiate a debate on Czech membership in the Eurozone, no matter how desirable this would have been in light of the changes to the EU.
The events playing out just over European borders were equally important. The security and humanitarian situation in the Middle East did not improve, and Russia’s redoubled military engagement in Syria stalled the prospects for a peaceful solution to the ongoing conflict. The year 2016 will always be remembered for the catastrophe that befell Aleppo as the international community stood by. It is here that Czech foreign policy floundered as it gambled on Bashar al-Assad in defiance of international sanctions and criticism of his regime. At least we see no other way of explaining the deepening of trade relations and brisk preparations for the reconstruction of Syria at a time when there was no end in sight to the war still raging in the country. The distorted identity of Czech diplomacy, where human rights have ceased to be a priority and are surrendered to precarious economic gains, thus received an even more absurd dimension in Syria. What is more, the thin ice on which the Czech Republic was skating in Syria cracked under the weight of its ambassador in Damascus, Eva Filipi, who – unusually for a diplomat – imprudently criticised Czech allies in public.
Considering how dynamic 2016 was, strategic thinking in Czech foreign policy should have been more visible than ever before. But it was not.Tweet it Pass
Just as we have rebuked the Czech diplomatic service for being unduly active in the wrong places in the case of Syria, we must be equally critical of it in relation to the Eastern Partnership, as it has slowly sidled away from an area where it should be making itself heard much more. Although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has championed transformation activities on a grassroots level in some countries, we
can see an overall decline of interest in events in Eastern Europe among political representatives. This is particularly evident in the way the region has come to be viewed almost purely from the perspective of economic gains and losses, whether in the expedient approach to economic migration from Ukraine or the criticism levelled by prominent public officials at the sanctions imposed on Russia.
Casting our gaze even further from Europe’s borders, we can see perhaps the biggest failure of Czech diplomacy last year – its approach to China. The Czech Republic’s decision to take an obsequious approach in efforts to deepen political and economic relations with China shows the complete subservience of foreign policy to the logic of specific economic interests. Worst of all was the response of public officials to the Dalai Lama’s meeting with the Minister of Culture, the like of which has
never been seen before. As more than four years of building cooperation with China has yielded no tangible benefits for the national economy, it is unclear why it is so advantageous for the Czech Republic to maintain exalted relations with this country.
It is also evident that the Czech Republic has neglected another traditional area of its foreign policy: support of human rights. The Czech Republic’s approach to refugees, the conflict in Syria, and relations with China have raised doubts as to whether human rights are still truly one of its priorities. There is an increasingly evident trend in Czech diplomacy to be pragmatic and to focus on economic relations, which means turning a blind eye to human rights as a luxury only affordable in better times. Yet in fact, it is when times are tough that human rights become more important.
Good news from around the world tended to be scarce last year, but cannot be overlooked, even though the Czech Republic played little, if any, part in these cases. At NATO’s Warsaw Summit, Member States decided that, among other things, the defence capabilities of the Alliance’s eastern wing needed to be bolstered. Though the Czech Republic made active contributions to negotiations ahead of the summit, it failed to follow through with steps geared towards greater involvement in common defence. This was mainly impeded by the limited capabilities of the Czech army. Even so, the Czech Republic has no plans to accelerate increases in defence spending in the foreseeable future, despite an appeal to European allies from across the Atlantic in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president. Nor should we overlook less visible matters, such as the speed with which the Paris climate agreement entered into force. However, here again the Czech Republic did not subscribe to its global responsibility and is one of only a handful of EU countries that has yet to ratify the agreement.
Czech diplomacy cannot boast any striking efforts to stabilise the international environment – let alone a high-profile contribution last year. Not only did the Czech Republic fail to distinguish itself by taking a proactive approach in its foreign policy, it also, if anything, undermined existing partnerships through the often unpredictable and even obstructive actions of its foreign-policy officials and domestic political elite. The Czech Republic dealt with important issues late, if at all, and Czech diplomacy was heard little when it came to what are typically strong areas of interest, such as the Eastern Partnership and human rights. Considering how dynamic 2016 was, strategic thinking in Czech foreign policy should have been more visible than ever before. But it was not.
Foreign Policy on the Domestic Scene
When exploring the causes of the problems described above, our first port of call should be the main governing party. In other words, much of the responsibility for Czech foreign policy last year rested with ČSSD (Czech Social Democratic Party), as it held the posts of Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and State Secretary for European Affairs. However, the Social Democrats were paralysed by internal disputes between the pro-European faction and national conservative wing. Furthermore, rhetoric by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs appears to show that the second of the aforementioned directions – calling for foreign policy to be more pragmatic and economically focused, as critiqued by us above – has gained ground within the party. The vacuum left by ČSSD, crippled by internal fighting, was filled by two men in particular: Miloš Zeman and Andrej Babiš. Both were capricious, opportunistic, and destructive. ČSSD, and Minister Lubomír Zaorálek in particular, were generally unable to stand up to them, even with the backing of KDU-ČSL (People’s Party), which maintained a relatively stable position in foreign-policy matters.
However, disunity within the main governing party and the absence of leadership from those responsible for foreign policy were not the only factors behind the disappointing performance of Czech foreign policy. We must also look inside the political parties, which by and large lack long-term schooling, strategic debate, and internal coordination in foreign-policy issues. The problem cannot be narrowed down to a lack of expertise – following the British referendum, for example, we saw a flurry of activity among party experts, who had begun to think about Czech foreign-policy interests. However, the opinions penned by experts and approved by party leaders were frequently stifled by members of Parliament. This proved fatal in parliamentary rejection of the agreement between the EU and Turkey and the debate on the Paris climate agreement.
Foreign policy also permeated society last year, and the negative perception of international affairs engendered a general sense of uncertainty. Concerns regarding health and employment, which, sociological surveys would have us believe had haunted Czechs over the past decade, gave way to fears of terrorism and immigration in the last two years. The agreement with Turkey significantly reduced disorganised migration from war-ravaged countries, and the number of refugees granted asylum by Czech authorities is negligible. Even so, according to public opinion polls, Czech fears regarding immigration were higher than the European average. Needless to say, in the prevailing environment, the majority of the public was against the acceptance of refugees. Like many other Europeans, the Czechs have also sought solace in politicians and parties who make wild promises to close the country off from the outside world and who have paved their way to success in elections by relying on xenophobic rhetoric, which then fans feelings of vulnerability and hatred.
Here, again, political leaders must shoulder much of the blame. Instead of objective and informed debate on current challenges and attempts to exercise a positive bearing on society’s frame of mind, they tapped into existing fears and abused foreign-policy issues to score points in the domestic political arena. President Miloš Zeman is peerless in this respect, though he had backup from political parties on both the left and right of the spectrum – an example here is the exploitation of the refugee crisis in campaigns for last year’s regional elections. However, politicians should bear in mind that if they want to pilot the Czech Republic smoothly through this difficult period, encouraging a fearful society will be of no help to them in either the long or short term.
Accordingly, our response to the Prime Minister’s words on all-pervasive foreign policy, as mentioned in the introduction to this chapter, is as follows: the fact that foreign events last year directly affected the Czech Republic and, in particular, increasingly found their way to the centre of domestic political attention may be good news, given that the pervasiveness of foreign policy is an opportunity to embark on a long-neglected debate on its future direction. However, if the political elite fails to approach this responsibly – whether at national level, when explaining foreign policy to citizens, or in efforts at a better understanding of international events – these circumstances could cause more harm than good. Sadly, the Czech Republic’s track record over the past year leaves little room for optimism.
Outlook for 2017
We should not lose sight of this in 2017. Key elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany, as well as in the Czech Republic in October, will indicate whether divisions or cooperation prevail in the EU. The United Kingdom will open negotiations on the conditions of its departure and the EU27 will have to do
deal with the issue of their common direction in more earnest. Nor can essential reform of asylum and migration policy be struck off the EU’s list of tasks because the root causes of the migration crisis have yet to be resolved and the Turkish agreement is nothing more than a temporary and unreliable stopgap. The year 2017 could reveal a lot about what the EU will look like in the future. The Czech Republic will have to think carefully about the sort of EU to which it wants to belong. Equally serious problems are also brewing in global politics: a big question mark hangs over the new dynamics underpinning relations between the US, Russia, and China. Foreign policy, then, is definitely set to remain all-pervasive.
About Agenda for Czech Foreign Policy
The introduction has mapped the main trends in international events. These are discussed in greater depth in the main body of this publication, offering a brief analytical overview of Czech foreign policy in key regional and thematic areas. The following text is the collaborative work of 17 authors from the Association for International Affairs. The publication draws on information from public sources, insights gained from year-round monitoring of Czech diplomatic activity, observations from expert meetings held by the Association, and the results of almost 50 consultations with representatives of key institutions dealing with foreign policy and other relevant stakeholders, such as chambers of commerce and humanitarian organisations. This year’s publication follows on the 10-year tradition of Agenda for Czech Foreign Policy, with minor innovations compared to previous years. Most importantly, we have simplified our grading system. This time, in each of the thematic chapters, the authors have assigned grades in three categories: activity, impact, and the normative aspect. Each of these categories then accounted for one third of the overall grade. You will find more information about our grading methodology in the introduction and individual chapters on page 67.