The informal European Union summit of government leaders in Bratislava on Friday is meant to send a signal that the political elite can get the European project back on track after the shock of the Brexit vote and apparent inability of Brussels to get to grips with the many problems facing the continent. The looming summit meeting appears to have sparked a discussion in the Czech Republic as well.
No binding decisions are set to be taken at Friday’s meeting in the Slovak capital. But that has not stopped a flurry of activity in European capitals with talks centred on the fundamental question of what direction should be taken after the British referendum rebuke.
The Czech Cabinet on Monday night adopted the mandate for Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka to take to Bratislava. The meeting will comprise leaders of just be 27 states with Britain physically absent, but it will certainly be the elephant in the negotiating room.
The Czech government position puts the emphasis on security. That is both of the EU’s outer borders under pressure as a result of the continuing immigration crisis and as regards defense in the wider context of a Europe unsettled by events in Ukraine and worries that it is poorly placed to face such threats closer to home in the future.
The government mandate specifically backs a deepening of European defense cooperation. That’s a subject that has been debated for more than 50 years with meagre results so far. Radko Hokovský of the Prague-based think tank European Values gave his take on the mandate:
“Prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka has already mentioned his call for a European army this August. And it was rather surprising because this was a topic which was many times mentioned by president [Miloš] Zeman but was never subject to serious debate about what it actually means. I understand this call or new topic in Czech EU policy is that it is an attempt, an effort, to have some constructive, positive message, something where the Czech Republic wants something which is more European cooperation.”
Former Social Democrat prime minister Vladimír Špidla, now an advisor to prime minister Sobotka, has also weighed in with a different angle on Prague’s future position in Europe. He recommended in an interview published Monday that the Czech Republic should consider joining the single currency euro as soon as possible to boost its influence. Špidla warned that decision making within Europe is likely to be increasingly dominated by those countries sharing the common currency, leaving the others sidelined on general as well as economic questions.
One extra participant at Monday’s Cabinet meeting was President Miloš Zeman. He came fresh from wide ranging talks with Austrian right-wing Freedom Party presidential candidate Norbert Hofer. Hofer voiced his idea of boosting Central European influence within the European Union – his so-called “Union within the Union” in which the current Visegrad Four countries would team up with Austria and some Balkan countries, such as Croatia, to take a common stand on European issues.
That wider concept of regional cooperation which should not detract from the EU has the backing of president Zeman.