The new and old challenges of Czech foreign policy in a world turned upside down by the pandemic
The epidemic has overshadowed the other diplomatic clashes, from the European budget to digital tax. And China is not merely watching
While waiting to understand what impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on international power balances, starting with the grip of the European Union, we will try to take stock of the main issues that characterize Czech foreign policy today. Regarding the EU in particular, until a few weeks ago the mantra that seemed to circulate more insistently in the heads of those in charge in Prague, as well as among the leaders of the whole of Europe, was only one: money, money, money. From the first signs, the debate between the solidarity approach or the use of the notorious ESM, it is clear, that in the coming months, all this will be even more relevant. All this while, in the midst of the Covid-19 emergency, the Chinese mask diplomacy has found very fertile ground in the Czech Republic, as in other parts of Europe.
Speaking of money, when the European Parliament said yes to the 37 billion euro measure of structural funds to combat coronavirus at the end of March, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš commented on Twitter with words of disarming coldness towards the Union: “I would like to emphasize that the EU is not giving us a crown more against Covid-19 than we already had the right to have before the pandemic. The media celebrate European institutions, but it is not extra money. It has been our money since a long time ago”.
For the record, an amount equivalent to more than 30 billion crowns will reach the Czech Republic, and Babiš on Twitter, as some commentators have pointed out, has failed to specify that Prague will now have the chance, with a different regime of distribution of resources, to use the full sum of the figure (which would have been almost impossible to do by the end of the year, in the same planning period). Moreover, the Prime Minister will be able to do so, without any obligation to integrate European funds with additional Czech resources, which would otherwise be one of the conditions for making use of them.
Nothing new under the sun anyway. Prague had already used slightly conciliatory tones with Brussels at the end of February, particularly when talking about the next EU budget. On that occasion Babiš had said no to any hypothesis of cutting European funds and above all to any binding indication on how to spend them. The fear is that this attitude may also reverberate in the approach to be adopted in the fight against the pandemic, in which the Europe of nation-states will have to be seen more united than ever before it can go forward, without losing pieces.
The European summit of the 20th and 21st of February had concluded with no decisions made over the negotiations for the 2021-2027 seven-year budget. The audience of member countries had appeared clearly split into two (if not three) camps: on the one hand the so-called “Frugal” nations of the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden and Denmark, on the other the 17 members of the “Friends of an ambitious Europe”. And then France and Germany. Within the largest group, the four Visegrad countries, including Prague, which had placed further conditions: no cut to the funds received so far and no connection between allocation and respect for the rule of law.
In this regard it is worth mentioning that the Czech Republic, from 2004 to 2019, received 56 billion euros and contributed 24.7 billion, with a net profit of 32.4 billion euros. According to the proposal of the European Commission, Prague would see this treasury of funds cut by around 25%, i.e. € 17.8 billion less. For Babiš, on the other hand, the funds are still used by the Czech Republic, which needs to invest again in motorways and railways. For him the cut that the “Frugals” want to impose for the seven-year period is unacceptable, and the viewpoint of Brussels that Prague has not been able to make the most of the 15 years of membership (unlike, just to not go far, Poland and Hungary who in this period built thousands of kilometres of highways) is negligible.
Another issue that does not go down well with Babiš, already at loggerheads with the EU on charges of conflict of interest and fraud in the use of EU funds through his company Agrofert, is the prospect that the EU will decide how to use a good part of the funds. According to the Commission, three quarters should be spent on supporting science and research and on environmental protection. “We Czechs know better than anyone what we need this money for, and our priorities are the highways and railways”, the Prime Minister bluntly said.
Another issue that the coronavirus crisis has understandably eclipsed is the one raised during the final moments of last year with the United States, a strategic ally of the Czech Republic, also from the point of view of Defense and NATO. We are referring to the prospective entry into force, already this year, of the digital tax in the Czech Republic, a topic on which Washington has immediately made it clear, without much deception, that it is ready to start a trade war with Prague. The digital tax indeed would affect American web giants such as Google and Facebook. The rate approved by the Prague government at the end of 2019 was 7%, while in parliament, the last time it was discussed in January, a more moderate orientation seemed to prevail, between 3% and 5%. The issue was then overwhelmed by the emergencies resulting from the world pandemic, but before this happened the American ambassador to Prague, Stephen King, who had warned the Czech legislator from too hasty steps forward, also spoke out, anticipating US retaliation without beating about the bush.
The theme would certainly have helped to spice up the planned visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Czech Republic in May. The number one in American diplomatic relations was in fact expected for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Pilsen by the United States military forces. However, it seems unlikely that the trip will take place, just as the Czech-American Forum that was to be held at Prague Castle in the presence of President Miloš Zeman in March was also called off.
The healthcare cataclysm caused by the coronavirus, on the other hand, seems to have re-launched the diplomatic harmony between the Czech Republic and China in recent weeks, about which in recent times the words “the end” were very close to being written. President Miloš Zeman had even “threatened” to give up his planned trip to Beijing in April, because he was disappointed by the small amount of Chinese investments in the Czech Republic. Sparks had been reignited by the twinning between the Municipality of Prague and Taipei, as well as the will of the President of the Senate Jaroslav Kubera, who suddenly died of a heart attack in mid-January, to visit Taiwan. An intention to which Chinese diplomats had reacted with a certainly not benevolent letter sent to Prague Castle, with even the threat of retaliation against Czech companies operating in the Far East.
The climate of little harmony between the two countries, as has been said, has paradoxically brightened with the arrival of the coronavirus in the Czech Republic. It was the so-called “Chinese mask diplomacy” which was thought to quell the nervousness, when Prague, unprepared for the emergency, could not help but comply with the new soft power of the Dragon, which immediately manifested itself in the form of planes full of masks, respirators and other medical clothing. The first cargo from China was greeted at Prague Airport by half the government, led by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who lavished them, as did half of Europe in the same condition, with endless thanks. The whole operation was favored and accelerated by the direct intervention of President Zeman and his closest collaborators, since it is precisely the men of the Castle who have the best contacts in China.
The agreements stipulate that for a month and a half, planes loaded with Chinese medical supplies arrive in the Czech Republic at a frequency of three times a week. In this regard, it should be noted that while a part of the Czech media have presented the operation as a manifestation of “great generosity of Beijing towards Czech friends”, there was no lack of observers who stressed that it is big business and that Prague is paying a fortune for the aid in crowns. Among these, is the sinologist Martin Hála, according to whom “this generous aid” is nothing more than an ill-concealed attempt by Beijing to make the Czech Republic a Chinese colony in Europe.
by Daniela Mogavero