Vladimír Bartovic, Martin Michelot, Zuzana Stuchlíková and Vít Havelka react to the informal meeting of the 27 heads of state or government held on the 23rd of February 2018.
During the informal meeting of the European Council in Brussels last Friday, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš highlighted the negative position of the Czech government towards the proposals to reform the EU architecture. Prague has come out strongly against the double-hatted Presidency of the Union, to create a minister of economy and finance as well as to extend qualified majority voting to the realm of internal market and foreign policy. The country also would like to abandon the Spitzenkandidaten concept of selection of the European Commission President and doesn't support the transnational lists for the European parliament elections.
While there are many particular reasons framing this blanket opposition, some general features are to be explained. The basis of this position is the “bad experience” with the political Commission that, in the opinion of the government, doesn't treat the Member States fairly and tries to diminish the role of Council. This opinion on the Commission moved the country from an eager supporter of the community method to a backer of the intergovernmental approach. The current reform proposals are destined, in the Czech opinion, to further strengthen the Commission. The government also feels that proposals on the table would substantial interfere with the letter of the Lisbon Treaty, which is perceived negatively, as treaty changes are not desired by Prague.
It is no surprise that the Czech governmental positions are so negative. Given the latest polls where only 54 percent of Czech would vote for remain if there is an exit referendum, the government doesn't want to give more arguments in hands of Czexit proponents.
One of the most surprising outcomes of a rather unsurprising informal meeting of heads of state and government is the open discussion between Donald Tusk and Polish PM Morawiecki on linking the respect of rule of law to the delivery of structural funds. When this idea was proposed earlier in 2017 by Paris and Berlin, reactions were initially overwhelmingly negative in Warsaw and Budapest, but the tectonic plates seem to have shifted. In reality, however, Morawiecki seems here to be playing the long game: by informally accepting conditionality and saying it should be built on very objective criteria, the Polish PM will undercut any sort of initiative by other leaders, given that the unanimity rule on budgetary issues means that any decision on criteria cannot be taken without Poland’s consent.
Macron replied that “it would be matter of good sense to halt the payment of some EU funds where is there is a breach of our values”, but it looks now like the momentum on this issue is clearly on the side of the defense, especially since the Lithuanian president last week refused to accept any sort of linkage between structural funds and respect of rule of law or migration-related binding commitments.
While leaders will continue to discuss individual budget lines, the meta-narrative of “sanctions” that will continue to infuse the debate around the next MFF seems to, at this point, not provide any sort of constructive inroad into discussing rule of law abuses, and may well symbolize the lack of enforcing mechanisms for the respect of the EU’s values. Paris cannot fight this battle alone and will need to create a strong coalition in order to change the narrative if it does not want to risk EU unity. As usual, all eyes will turn to the position of the next German government on this issue.
The reform of the European Parliament after Brexit was one of the two main topics on the agenda of the 23/2/2018 informal summit. Leaders of the EU-27 decided to effectively put a stop to the two key initiatives that aimed at making the EU a bit more federalist – the proposal of transnational lists for the EP elections and the system of the so-called Spitzenkandidaten.
Transnational lists did not manage to gain a support even in the European Parliament itself. The proposal sparked debate about the relations between the pan-European MEPs and their voters – questions of accountability and representativeness were at the core of criticism. Postponement by the heads of states and governments is therefore not surprising.
The decision to not automatically subscribe to the Spitzenkandidaten system, on the other hand, will undoubtedly create tensions between the Council and the EP. MEPs strongly support the system first introduced in 2014 and consider any changes as a step backwards. However, EU leaders, including Czech PM Babiš, stress the need for an apolitical, independent Commission and prefer to have the final word in the decision. Still, the aim of having an apolitical president of the Commission does not really correspond with the formulation of the Lisbon Treaty, which rather vaguely suggests that the results of the EP elections should be considered.
Both decisions of the informal European Council signal the tendency to preserve (and strengthen) the power of the member states over pushing for more integration. Such a move goes against the usual EU modus operandi of “more integration” in response to crises (in this case post-Brexit struggle for legitimacy), but the result reflects the emphasis on the intergovernmental basis of the integration. In the EP reform debate, leaders put Member States first.
On February 23rd, 2018, the European leaders were summoned in Brussels to kick off the negotiations about the future Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). The summit was mainly supposed to clarify member states´ opinions and no one anticipated a swift advance in the talks. The leaders eventually agreed to allocate more funding to defence cooperation and the management of illegal migration.
The Czech Republic can be satisfied with the outcomes of the summit. Its existing priority areas will receive more funding and no undesirable decisions have been made with regard to potentially contentious issues (e.g. the post-Brexit revenue gap or the conditionality of the access to the EU funds). More development in negotiations can probably be expected in May, after the European Commission has published its first MFF proposal.
Regarding the size of the budget, the Czech Republic unsurprisingly belongs to the states that would consent to increasing their payments. Czechs are net beneficiaries from the EU budget which means that the largest possible budget size is in their interest. The Czech Republic would also like to see sufficiently funded illegal migration management which will not be feasible without increased contributions.
It still remains unclear whether the EU funds will be linked to respecting rule of law or willingness to accept asylum seekers. It is very unlikely that any of these proposals will eventually be enacted. Nevertheless, it will cost the Czech Republic a significant amount of political capital that could be invested in decisions about the scope and focus of the European cohesion policy.
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