Focusing on Obama’s visit

Czech Republic
Institute of International Relations
 
The current centre-right government is more ‘Atlanticist’ in its outlook than the previous one. The biggest party in the coalition, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), presents itself as a strong supporter of transatlantic ties. Smaller coalition partners – the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) and the Greens (SZ) – are either affirmative (KDU-ČSL) or too weak to change the Atlanticist shift (SZ). The current government still respects the general trend and the continuity of Czech foreign policy as based on ‘two pillars’ – membership in the EU and an alliance with the USA.[1] On the other side, there were moments when the Atlanticist leaning of the government became evident. The prime example is the support of the US radar base in the Czech Republic. Also, the Czech government is quite sceptical regarding the ability of the EU to provide ‘hard’ security to its member states (through the European Security Defence Policy (ESDP)). Thus, the EU membership is perceived rather as an ‘economic pillar’, and the strategic bond with the USA (either bilateral or multilateral within the NATO) is seen as vital for the hard security of the Czech Republic.
 
Given its Atlanticist orientation, it is not surprising that the ‘transatlantic bond’ plays an important role in the priorities of the current government towards (and within) the EU. Officially, “the Czech Republic sees as crucial Europe’s transatlantic link with the USA and Canada, and the strategic partnership between the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union”.[2] In this context, strong ties, partnership and cooperation between the USA and the EU are seen as indispensable for the ’hard’ security of the EU in a similar way as the partnership of the USA and the Czech Republic is indispensable for the hard security of the Czech Republic. According to the Czech government, the contemporary partnership between the USA and the EU is less about securing intra-European stability and more about securing Europe from external threats.[3]
 
The transatlantic bond between the USA and Europe is seen by the government as a necessity – a strategic and geopolitical imperative caused by Europe’s (European powers’) lack of military capacities, the weak ESDP and also a ‘lack of a will to defend itself’ on the side of Europe. A strong transatlantic bond is an end in itself, and the discussion rarely extends beyond general proclamations that ‘we need a strong transatlantic link’.
 
The priorities of the Czech Presidency are a bit more concrete than a public debate on a transatlantic link between the USA and Europe. “Multilateralism, the Middle East peace process, Afghanistan/Pakistan and relations with Russia” are the top priorities “within the transatlantic dialogue”.[4] According to the government, the renewed transatlantic dialogue should focus on these issues. But concrete (public) proposals on how to revitalize the dialogue itself and on how to rebuild the confidence on both sides of the Atlantic are missing. The government focuses primarily on the arrangement of the EU-US summit in Prague (the organization of this summit is supported by the whole political scene).[5] We can illustrate the point on the case of Guantanamo prisoners. Accepting these prisoners can be seen as an opportunity for an initial ‘confidence building measure’. Despite its pro-American outlook, the Czech government took a quite cautious position. The Czech Foreign Minister stressed that “it is up to each nation what they will decide”.[6] So far, there are no signs that the Czech Republic will accept any of the inmates.[7]
 
It should also be noted that the Czech debate about Atlanticism and strategic ‘transatlantic’ ties with the US is bilateral in its nature. The future of Czech-US relations (the issue of the US radar base) gains much more salience than the ‘EU-US’ relations. The Czech discussion revolves around the future of the US radar base after Obama’s inauguration rather than about US-EU cooperation. Here, the government expects the continuation of the cooperation while the opposition Social Democrats believe that Obama (confronted with the financial crisis) will scrap the plan for the radar base. The Social Democrats even called upon Obama to scrap the plans for the radar base, believing that such a step would “signal a new era in the relations between Europe and the USA”.[8]
 
Moreover, the Civic Democrats, as the main coalition partner, treat even the “transatlantic ties” between Europe and the US as an issue of bilateral ties between the US and EU member states. The Czech political scene has quite happily accepted Rumsfeld’s distinction between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ (US-friendly) Europe. The upcoming meeting with Obama in Prague can be seen as an attempt to reconfirm this special relationship between the US and the new Europe. The Civic Democrats (in contrast to the opposition Social Democrats) still do not believe in the notion of the EU as a ‘political actor’ – a consolidated entity which can enter into the ‘EU-US’ relationship.[9] This may also be the reason for their reluctance (inability) to reformulate their general call for stronger ‘Europe-US’ transatlantic ties into concrete proposals for ‘EU-US’ cooperation and partnership on the ground.




[1] Petr Drulák: Česká zahraniční politika mezi internacionalismem a atlantismem (Czech foreign policy between internationalism and Atlanticism), in: Michal Kořan (ed.): Česká zahraniční politika v roce 2007. Analýza ÚMV, Ústav mezinárodních vztahů, Prague 2008.


[2] Transatlantic relations – priorities of the Czech Republic, EU2009.cz, available at: http://eu2009.cz/en/eu-policies/general-affairs-and-external-relations/e... (last access: 28 January 2009).


[3] Ibid.


[4] Work Programme of the Czech Presidency. Europe without Barriers, Czech presidency of the Council of the EU, 2009, available at: http://eu2009.cz/en/czech-presidency/programme-and-priorities/programme-... (last access: 28 January 2009).


[5] Češi chtějí v Praze zorganizovat první setkání Obamy a lídrů EU (Czechs want to organize the first meeting between Obama and EU leaders), Czech news agency, 5 November 2008.


[6] EU doubts over taking in former Guantánamo prisoners, The Guardian, 26 January 2009, available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jan/26/eu-guantanamo-inmates-offer (last access: 3 February 2009).


[7] The government remains silent, but the opposition Social Democrats refused to accept the prisoners in the Czech Republic or in the EU (c.f. Sociální demokraté se k přijmutí vězňů z Guantánama staví odmítavě, Mediafax.cz, 24 January 2009). The public assumes a hostile stance, refusing to accept any Guantánamo ’terrorists’ on Czech soil.


[8] Libor Rouček: Libor Rouček vyzývá Baracka Obamu ke zrušení plánů na výstavbu amerického radaru v Brdech (Libor Rouček calls upon Barack Obama to scrap the plans for the construction of the American radar in Brdy), ČSSD press statement, 5 November 2008.


[9] It must also be noted that the attitude of the Civic Democrats towards the notion of the EU as a global political actor is becoming more affirmative recently. The reason lies in the perceived need to (jointly) face up to the ’global challenges’ of, e.g., the geopolitical revival of Russia and the economic (which turned into the geopolitical) rise of ’Asian powers’ such as India or China.