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EU flag over Prague Castle

Milos Zeman, the new president of the Czech Republic, has clearly distanced himself from the Eurosceptic views of his predecessor. Yet, a recent standoff with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows unexpected tension over foreign policy might be just around the corner.

A view of Prague Castle. Shutterstock/Ivo Brezina. All rights reserved.A view of Prague Castle. Shutterstock/Ivo Brezina. All rights reserved.

For the first time since the Czech Republic became a member of the European Union in 2004, the gold-starred EU flag is flying over the country’s most symbolic government building – Prague Castle. This is mainly courtesy of new president Milos Zeman who – in contrast to the notoriously eurosceptic former president Vaclav Klaus – calls himself a euro-federalist. Indeed, the first presidential steps of Zeman show that he will be more accommodating vis-à-vis the EU than his predecessor and that he is unlikely to block decisions that lead to deeper integration of EU countries, which Klaus did on a number of occasions.

The act of hoisting the EU flag over Prague Castle was overseen by President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, who attended on Zeman’s invitation. Within a few moments after the flag-raising ceremony, Barroso stood by as Zeman signed an amendment to the Lisbon Treaty that mandates the eurozone’s permanent bailout fund – the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). Barroso later stated that both acts are “very powerful symbols of the attachment of the Czech Republic to [the] common project” and Zeman added that the acts “symbolize Czech adherence to the mainstream of European integration”.

Underlining his position of a euro-federalist, Zeman stands for a “common foreign policy, common defense policy and […] a common fiscal policy, including gradual tax harmonization”. In the past, he has even shown favourable views towards a common army. These views of the EU represent a stark contrast to Vaclav Klaus’ positions, who saw most EU provisions and policies as infringements upon Czech national sovereignty.

In a recent interview in the German regional newspaper Passauer Neue Presse, Zeman envisioned that the Czech Republic could join the Eurozone within five years – but also expressed his “anti-Islamist sentiments”, saying that he does not support Turkey’s entry into the EU. In this sense, Zeman also opposes the EU membership of the Balkan countries, except for Croatia and Serbia. By contrast, the president supports a pragmatic, business-like approach towards Russia and believes that Moscow could potentially join the EU in a time-horizon of 20 years.

On the one hand, Zeman is likely to continue to push the Czech Republic towards the main current of EU integration. On the other hand, his penchant for Russia (Zeman speaks perfect Russian and a close member of his campaign team runs a Lukoil subsidiary in the Czech Republic) raises concerns that Czech foreign policy may succumb to Russian interests in the region (most notably the upgrade of the Temelin nuclear power plant). These concerns were further emphasized by a recent standoff between the President and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Karel Schwarzenberg, which seems to indicate that Zeman will attempt to have more say over foreign policy than his predecessors.

The pretext of this standoff is the appointment of ambassadors. In the process of appointing Czech diplomats, the precedent set by former presidents Havel and Klaus was that (most of the time) the Minister of Foreign Affairs proposed the name of the ambassador to the Cabinet, the Cabinet approved (or disapproved) of the name, while the president only signed and confirmed the nomination. Any political bargaining concerning the nominees was done behind closed doors.

Recent developments show that the president may want to reverse this trend. Zeman has taken the initiative and proposed names for ambassadorial posts in Russia and Slovakia to the Cabinet. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, claiming that he prefers career diplomats to political nominees and that proposing diplomats is in his competence, is not willing to accept Zeman’s nominees. The core of this issue, however, lies elsewhere. 

Karel Schwarzenberg, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, happens to have been Zeman’s rival candidate in the second round of the presidential election. Some facts point to the possibility that the current standoff between the two politicians is also a personal dispute, as shown by the controversial issue of the president’s nomination of Livia Klausova, the wife of Vaclav Klaus, to be the ambassador in Slovakia

During the presidential campaign, Klausova directly supported Zeman and attacked Schwarzenberg’s wife saying that she does not wish to be “replaced by an Austrian first lady who speaks only German”. Thus, Zeman’s nomination of Klausova for the ambassadorial post in Slovakia can be perceived as a “reward” for her (important) support in the election – and this might also be why Schwarzenberg is blocking her nomination.

Amid this dispute, Schwarzenberg was surprisingly not invited to the flag-hoisting ceremony with Barroso, nor did Zeman include him in his delegation to Slovakia – a customary and symbolic first trip of every Czech president.

The current tension between the Cernin Palace (the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and Prague Castle demonstrates Zeman’s intentions to exercise wider presidential powers. The head of the foreign affairs department of the president’s office, Hynek Kmonicek, mentioned that simply by the virtue of the direct presidential election (which was introduced for the first time this year), the new president has a stronger mandate than his predecessors and thus can wield full powers granted to him by the constitution. Concerning the current standoff over ambassadors, the Czech constitution favours the president’s authority in nominating diplomats.

The political stalemate between the two former election rivals may continue for a full year until the next parliamentary elections take place. According to recent polls, the current coalition government may well lose its majority in the next elections and be replaced by the social democrats (CSSD) who would be likely to form a coalition with the communists (KSCM) or a party founded by Zeman – The Party of Citizens’ Rights Zemanovci (SPOZ). In this case, Schwarzenberg would lose his ministerial position and Zeman could overlook the nomination of a more like-minded foreign minister.

Until then, will the Czech Republic pursue a dual-tracked foreign policy – one formulated by Prague Castle and the other by the Cernin Palace? Hopefully, the interactions of president Zeman and other ministers will not create additional standoffs, which could weaken or paralyze other ministries and governmental institutions.

About the author

Jan Hornát is a lecturer at Charles University in Prague and Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of International Relations, Prague.

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