Tomáš Petříček came to the head of the Czech Foreign Ministry in a completely unexpected way and proved himself the political surprise of the last few months

Nominated as a compromise solution – to find eventually the last piece of the complicated coalition government puzzle led by Andrej Babiš or to remove a specific character who was disliked by president Miloš Zeman, namely Miroslav Poche – the social democrat Tomáš Petříček made it clear in these last few months that he will not be a background player.

Criticized for his lack of experience, the new head of diplomacy proves himself able to stand up to the head of state. This is a performance not to be neglected for a 37-year-old who was almost completely unknown until recently and occupied only for a few months in the past the position of Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Affairs (2017), and before, that of Deputy Foreign Minister (from August to October 2018).

Former assistant to the same Poche in the European Parliament, graduate in Social Sciences at Charles University with various international specializations, he was chosen by his party colleagues as an alternative to the MEP, guilty in Zeman’s eyes of welcoming the distribution of quotas on migrants requested by Brussels and denied by Prague.

The Castle accepted the nomination of Petříček under condition that the same Poche would leave his position of political secretary at Černín Palace and would return to perform his duty as a MEP.

Committed pro-European and Atlanticist – “because there is no real alternative to EU and NATO” – with a marked antipathy for Kremlin policy (constantly criticized by Petříček) the new Foreign Affairs Minister declared that his primary objective will be “outlining Czech Republic’s role in EU and the wider transatlantic area”, a position that will need to be based on “a continuous and coherent foreign policy”.

For this reason, at the beginning of the mandate he declared wanting to consult with the Premier and the President about foreign policy initiatives so that the country “speaks with one voice”. An intention that did not prove itself fruitful until now. There are three episodes that rose the Castle’s anger so far.

Russia is the leading actor of the first one. For example, the newly appointed minister has made it clear, without too many allusions, that the staff and diplomatic cars of the Russian Embassy in Prague are numerous, proposing an overall reduction plan. According to observers, the project poorly conceals the fear that some of the Russian employees are actually spies. However, the initiative infuriated the President, known for his pro-Russian positions and repeatedly expressed support of the cooperation with Moscow, criticizing European sanctions. “We must not agree with Russia but we must talk to each other. The most foolish thing would be to ignore each other. I feel sorry for those who rejoice in making new enemies”, declared Zeman. A position supported by the Ksčm Communists as well whose votes are decisive for the current minority government Ano/Čssd and who have more than once made it clear that they do not appreciate Petříček’s presence in the executive.

Still on the Russian front, the latter has repeatedly reiterated its support to Kiev, both in the recent Azov sea crisis and the one defined as the “unacceptable annexation of Crimea”. Moscow represents a “real risk for the dissemination of false information and various hybrid threats”.

The second disagreement came quickly, only a few weeks later, concerning the Israel matter and the project promoted by Zeman, to move the Czech Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as soon as possible. The Foreign Minister expressed a decidedly more cautious and wait-and-see position, recalling that the maneuver should take place in compliance with the international law and the resolution of the UN Security Council.

The third episode, not less resounding than the previous ones, concerns the Minister’s proposal to downgrade four Czech embassies, including that in Rome. The headquarter of the diplomatic mission in Italy, together with the ones in Ankara, Kiev and Budapest should be excluded from the list of primary importance ones that so far are 17 in the world. According to sources, the downgrade would be included in the context of reducing public spending. “A merely administrative act”, declared Černín Palace. However, the echo was huge.

President Zeman called Petříček “incompetent”, accusing him of not having shared the project neither with the Castle nor with Babiš. “The minister acts unprofessional and proves himself not be aware of the importance of Italy in EU”, declared Zeman live on TV regarding the planned downgrading of the diplomatic mission in the Belpaese. Even more, Zeman received Viktor Orbán in Prague during those exact days and he apologized to the Hungarian PM for the intentions of his Minister concerning the Czech Embassy in Budapest.

However, on the Italian front, the cloud seems to have dissipated quickly, among the assurances of the Czech government “on the excellent relations” between the two countries and the possibility that this measure of reducing spending, by paying less for some of the non-priority mission charges, would never see the light. Černín Palace explained that the embassies’ category is a technical matter. Nevertheless, the measure will have to follow several steps before becoming reality and – as explained by sources directly linked to the project – it represents the litmus test of a certain opposition between parties and institutions on Czech foreign policy.

Mid-December, the minister was also a guest of honor of the Christmas Gala of the Italian-Czech Chamber of Commerce and Industry that took place at Žofín, in Prague. Petříček addressed entrepreneurs and public figures emphasizing the excellent relations between the two countries, on all levels. The statements were repeated also in the speeches of the Italian ambassador in Czech Republic, Francesco Saverio Nisio and the Ambassador of the Czech Republic in Italy, Mrs. Hana Hubáčková.

After all these disagreements comes the matter on which the Foreign Minister agrees with the Head of State and Premier Andrej Babiš: migration. Unlike Poche, who could have supported the European strategy, the “newcomer” believes that Czech Republic should focus rather on external support than on welcoming migrants. “We can do a lot in countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to help refugees and improve their living conditions in refugee camps – he declared. Our goal should be to stabilize these countries they run away from so we enable them to stay there”. Furthermore, Prague did not sign the UN Global Compact on Migration, the international pact that was signed in Marrakesh after months of negotiations because “it lacks a clear condemnation of irregular immigration”, declared the Foreign Minister, drawing a line to burden-sharing in this regard with international partners and not changing the pace in this matter unlike his predecessors.

by Daniela Mogavero