Normative aspect: A-
Final mark: B+
Czech diplomacy played an excellent round in February’s European Council negotiations on the United Kingdom’s position in the EU. However, the deal that was struck largely came to naught in the wake of the outcome of the British referendum. The initiation of working discussions between the government and interest groups on the implications of Brexit for the Czech Republic, on Czech priorities in negotiations, and on the future of the EU was an important step. The fact that Brexit elicited the interest of some Czech political parties in the future of the European Union is a welcome consequence. In the EU’s process of reflection following the British referendum, the Czech Republic mainly pushed for the further development of the Union’s economic policies rather than efforts to either intensify or relax political integration; this can be viewed in a positive light. On the other hand, efforts to enhance the European Council’s decision-making role raise doubts. There was also virtually no progress in the Czech Republic’s accession to the euro area. The Czech Republic did, at least, declare its interest in becoming part of the integration core through the reinforcement of the common European defence policy, though these efforts initially lacked any specific content and their communication was not well-managed.
In the cardinal issue of Brexit, the Czech Republic actively sought a viable agreement on the UK’s position within the EU. Following the referendum, the Czech Republic concentrated on preparing for negotiations with the UK and the European reflection process, and sought to improve coordination of the domestic approach to these matters.
The Czech Republic played an important role in the February negotiations on the new conditions of the UK’s EU membership, which would have entered into force had the referendum returned a “remain” result. As the country holding the V4 presidency, it acted as a mediator between the UK and (especially) Poland and Slovakia, as countries whose citizens take abundant advantage of the free movement of persons and live in the United Kingdom. The European Council’s final decision also took into account specific Czech interests, in particular the ban on expanding the indexation of social benefits (i.e. adjustments to the amounts of benefits based on the standard of living in the country in which they are actually paid out). This was a significant move to keep the integrity of the single market afloat, even though the conclusions of the February European Council were rendered formally invalid by the outcome of the British referendum.
In negotiations on the UK’s departure from the EU, a condition for the remaining 27 Member States and EU institutions will be the inseparability of the four freedoms of the internal market. Negotiations, however, will not be opened until the UK officially launches the procedure to leave the EU in accordance with Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. Both these factors work to the Czech Republic’s advantage as it benefits from the functioning of the internal market and British participation therein. Bearing in mind the potential impact of the UK’s departure, a government-created working group on Brexit and EU reform that also involves trade unions and businesses is an appropriate way to seek strong political and social consensus on home ground.
Following the June referendum, Member States embarked on a process of reflection that was intended to draw the EU closer to its citizens. The Czech Republic joined in with the topics of improved protection of the Schengen area, economic convergence between older and newer Member States, and proposals to develop specific economic policies. Against the background of the Czech Republic’s current economic interests – in particular the need to bring the standard of living and wages between older and newer Member States closer together – and looming negotiations on the future of the European budget, placing emphasis on economic convergence is a good tactic.
On the other hand, Czech efforts to enhance the European Council’s decision-making role must be viewed in a critical light. While such efforts may seem sensible in a situation where the current European Commission is much more politically active, the Czech Republic – as a medium-sized EU country – should be interested in championing an independent Commission and Court of Justice of the European Union as defenders of the treaties and rules on which European integration is built.
The most striking Czech response to the British referendum was its rather generally declared determination to participate in closer defence cooperation between countries within the EU. An active position and efforts to belong to the core of European integration in this area were a logical strategy, particularly in view of abiding domestic political and economic limits preventing the swift introduction of the euro. However, this decision was not followed by any further action to place the Czech Republic’s new strategic priority in a clearer framework in terms of content and timing.