Vladimír Bärtl, Czech Ambassador to Luxembourg; Credit: Czech Embassy in Luxembourg

On 1 July 2022, the Czech Republic assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) for the second time, taking over from France; Czechia’s first presidency took place in the first half of 2009.

The Council presidency rotates among the EU Member States every six months, with those holding the presidency working closely together in groups of three, or "trios". The Czech presidency is part of a trio together with the recent French and upcoming Swedish presidencies. The French presidency lasted from 1 January to 30 June 2022; Czechia's presidency will run from 1 July to 31 December 2022; finally, Sweden will assume the presidency from 1 January to 30 June 2023.

Chronicle.lu recently had the opportunity to speak with the Czech Ambassador to Luxembourg, Vladimír Bärtl, about the Czech presidency, its priorities and what it has already achieved in its first month.

Chronicle.lu: This is not the first time Czechia has assumed the Council of the EU's presidency. What is different this time?

Ambassador Bärtl: The organisation of the presidency is different from 2009; in the meantime, the Lisbon Treaty has entered into force, so the role of the presidency has different aspects. On the other hand, what is the same, is that we are facing a crisis again; this time, not only in the energy sector. The gas crisis of early 2009 was resolved by the 2009 Czech presidency (with the generous support of Angela Merkel). The 2022 Czech presidency is marked not only by the ever-present threat of COVID, but especially by Russia's aggressive behaviour, and their invasion of Ukraine in February. This already affected the 2022 French presidency, forcing them to adjust their activities during the semester. The Czech presidency priorities are already fully affected by this situation.

Chronicle.lu: Could you please elaborate on the motto: "Europe as a Task: Rethink, Rebuild, Repower"?

Ambassador Bärtl: I must admit that I am really proud that our government has returned to the ethos and legacy of Václav Havel, a man who brought many original approaches to politics with a deep human touch.

26 years ago, Václav Havel came with his speech "Europe as a task". Europe was different then, but we can see some similarities. Europe was changing, it was the end of one era as we are experiencing now, and on the basis of that, Havel called for a rethinking of the role of Europe. One of the similarities is that the Europe of today is different from the Europe of last year.

But as our Minister for European Affairs, Mikuláš Bek, mentioned, there is a big difference; Václav Havel was convinced at the time that we had enough time for quiet reflection. I am afraid that we cannot afford to do that; we must react quickly. But a similar upheaval of history awaits us. The war in Europe is beyond the EU's eastern borders and we should not be naive and feel secure that it is far away. It is not even as far as Luxembourg to Lisbon, and I cannot fail to recall a historical simile that applies to our country, from former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: "In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain called the conflict between Nazi Germany and my native Czechoslovakia 'a kind of dispute in a distant land between people we know nothing about'. Less than two years later, the Nazis bombed London".

I know that we should not allow historical analogies cloud our analysis, but it would be a tragic mistake to ignore lessons from history and let us be tempted into the appeasement policy. We should keep in mind that Ukraine is letting its blood also for us. For each tank, airplane or artillery piece that Ukraine destroys, there is one less for Europe to worry about.

So, I believe we have to find courage to reevaluate many of our current approaches and premises and if we want to live up to the expectations of this historical moment, our multiple challenge is to rethink, rebuild and repower Europe.

To quote Minister Bek again - those words can be understood in various perspectives, but we believe those three words reflect properly the present tasks of the EU. We have to rethink our present situation, we have to rebuild - not only the energy connections across Europe, but maybe the EU itself, we have to rebuild Ukraine, and we have to repower Europe not just in sense of energy, but in sense of power and military defence capabilities. So, we believe those three words perfectly distilled the tasks we have ahead of us.

Chronicle.lu: Please outline the main priorities of the Czech presidency of the Council of the EU. What role do crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine play?

Ambassador Bärtl: We have defined five priority areas for the Czech presidency, which were all developed after the Russian aggression:

1. Managing the refugee crisis and Ukraine’s post-war recovery

A few weeks ago, we celebrated the 31st anniversary of the last Russian soldier leaving Czechoslovakia after 23 years. Imagine 925 rail transports, 33,000 loaded wagons, 1,220 tanks, 2,505 infantry fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers, 103 aircraft, 173 helicopters and 95,000 tonnes of ammunition were leaving Czechoslovakia. Over 100 different sites used by Russian troops had to be handed over to Czechoslovaks. Many of these sites were heavily polluted, the soil and groundwater were contaminated with oil products and other chemicals, and unexploded ordnance posed a danger. So, we have authentic experience of the Russian military presence, devastating moral and material values, and that's why we are strongly defending the territorial integrity of Ukraine and are preparing for the post-war reconstruction of the country.

Regarding the refugee crisis, from Czechia we see this problem first-hand; we have already issued over 400,000 temporary protection statuses, which now represent about 4% of the country's population. During the Czech presidency, you will see many Ukrainian ministers in informal meetings, as we believe that there is a great need for an exchange of views between Ukraine and the EU. We will support the organisation of a donor conference during the Czech presidency and are ready to moderate a discussion on the so-called Marshall Plan for Ukraine.

2. Energy security

Czechia is well-placed to moderate the debate, as it is a landlocked country and faces the greatest difficulties with the disruption of Russian gas and oil supplies. We will be moderating a debate on the RePowerEU initiative. These days we are facing energy poverty in Europe and we will try to make major progress in this area. We are pushing for greater flexibility in the use of European funds; we think that many of the financial instruments and the whole of Europe's budget for this period was created in the face of an older type of crisis, COVID, and we need to adapt to the new challenges we face. We therefore believe that we need more flexibility in the use of financial instruments, especially in the context of the energy problems that we are facing in many Member States.

3. Strengthening Europe's defence capabilities and cyberspace security

We see many changes of mind in this area. We are ready to implement the Strategic Compass, as the key strategic document, and we pay attention to the files addressing the problems of cybersecurity.

4. Strategic resilience of the European economy

We are focusing on the problem of supply chains, which have been disrupted in many areas, and on raw materials. It is not surprising that Czechia is pushing a free trade agenda. We would like to make progress in opening up new opportunities. There is a good opportunity to go further, especially given that the Czech presidency will be followed by the Swedish and Spanish presidencies, and both countries are strong supporters of negotiations with Latin America, Mexico or New Zealand and Australia. This priority also covers a substantial part of the digital agenda.

5. Resilience of democratic institutions

We would like to focus on media freedom. We are ready to moderate a discussion on the rule of law and would like to add some topics to the debate. During our presidency, we want to raise the profile of the institutions that are working to remember the totalitarian past in European countries, and we want to organise a conference with the participation of Memorial [a human rights group], which is banned in Russia, and similar institutions from Central and Western Europe.

Chronicle.lu: What role do you hope the Czech Embassy in Luxembourg (and you yourself as Ambassador) can play within this EU presidency? Are there any special events and / or meetings on the agenda?

Ambassador Bärtl: The main burden during the Czech presidency lies on the Government Office, the individual ministries in charge of their respective agendas, the Permanent Representation in Brussels and the dozens of experts who lead the working groups. The role of the bilateral embassies is mainly to present and explain the priorities of the Czech presidency well to the host country and all relevant partners, to organise Head of Missions (HOMs) events during which colleagues from the Member States will have the opportunity to discuss agenda issues with Luxembourg officials. However, I can mention that I intend to organise one special outdoor HOMs meeting on the Moselle River, during which we will harvest grapes in the vineyard. I would also like to invite representatives of the candidate countries to this meeting.

Chronicle.lu: The Czech presidency started in the summer months when the work rhythm typically slows down, but has it already seen some results?

Ambassador Bärtl: The Czech presidency has had a very sharp start and started to implement its priorities very soon, for example in the area of the digital agenda or the Western Balkans: in the first few weeks, the political programme “The Road to the Digital Decade 2030” was provisionally approved and discussed by the EU Council and the European Parliament, and accession negotiations with the EU for North Macedonia and Albania began.

In recent days, the Czech presidency has managed to succeed in getting Ukrainian driving licences recognised by all EU countries; since the start of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, more than five million Ukrainian citizens have fled to EU countries. Being able to drive on European roads without having to obtain a new driving licence will not only make their daily lives easier, but will also open the door to easier social and economic integration in their host country.

But I consider the biggest success to be the outcome of the Extraordinary Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Council (Energy) on 26 July, where EU energy ministers reached a political agreement on a voluntary reduction of natural gas demand by 15% this winter. The purpose of this Council regulation is to save gas in order to prepare for possible disruptions of gas supplies from Russia that is continuously using energy supplies as a weapon. The regulation foresees the possibility for the Council to trigger a "Union Alert" on security of supply, in which case the gas demand reduction would become mandatory.

As stated by the Hospodářské noviny newspaper, the Czech presidency thus spoiled Vladimir Putin's joy. The Kremlin yearns for a divided European Union, for divided member states at odds with each other. If, on the contrary, the EU is able to act together, each member is in an infinitely stronger position vis-à-vis Russia. Vladimir Putin knows this well, which is why he has been playing the gas game for months, even before he attacked Ukraine. He has turned its flow off and on again, artificially driving up its price. He believes that this will break the unity of the EU.

The Czech presidency has ensured that Moscow, at least for now, has failed. That this was not a given is shown by the fact that the influential Politico website recently described the possibility of a deal as "mission impossible".

Jozef Síkela, Minister of Industry and Trade, who was presiding the Energy Council, said: "We have made a huge step towards securing gas supplies for our citizens and economies for the upcoming winter. Today we are sending a strong signal not only to Vladimir Putin who once again failed to divide the European Union but most importantly to our citizens. […] Unless the EU gets rid of dependency on Russian gas, the prices remain high. If we succeed, the prices will drop. I’m sure during the next months the EU will continue to improve its energy security".

Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson added: "There was consensus around the table that we need to get ready for the worst and everyone should contribute, sending a clear signal to the markets, citizens and those hoping for signs of EU disunity".

And in this context, I would like to touch on another priority of the Czech presidency: the fight against disinformation, for example myths about sanctions against Russia. In fact, they are working; they are brutally weakening the Russian economy. "Sanctions are crippling Russia's economy in a catastrophic way”, a team of five economists from the prestigious US-based Yale University argue in a study of more than 100 pages.

Chronicle.lu: 2022 is a busy (and special) year for Czechia and the Czech Embassy in Luxembourg: not only is Czechia assuming the Council of the EU's presidency but it is also celebrating the centenary of diplomatic relations with the Grand Duchy. Apart from the piano concert held in April this year, what other events or activities are foreseen to mark this anniversary?

Ambassador Bärtl: In May, we commemorated the 80th anniversary of Operation Anthropoid, during which Czechoslovak paratroopers carried out the successful assassination of the highest-ranking Nazi leader during the war, the architect of the Holocaust, Reinhard Heydrich, and the tragic fate of Lidice, as revenge from the Nazis.

A great celebration for me was the commemoration of 20 years since the passing of Pierre Werner, a great Luxembourger and European. As is well known, the Czech Embassy has the honour of being in the house that Pierre Werner owned from 1955 until his death in 2002. On 24 June, the anniversary day, we inaugurated an exhibition about his life; it is still on display on the embassy fence and I see passers-by reading it every day. I was very pleased that, together with Mr Werner's granddaughter, the cellist Annemie Osborne, and the singing group La Confrérie du chant traditionnel, the event featured music that Mr Werner loved.

The next planned exhibition in the Embassy's "plein air gallery" will focus on the 100th anniversary of diplomatic relations.

In the autumn, together with the Ville de Luxembourg and the Fond Kirschberg, we will inaugurate the Václav Havel Street and at the same time raise the profile of Czechia as a focus country at the CinÉast film festival.

Chronicle.lu: Finally, what are some of the subjects and / or values that unite Czechia and Luxembourg?

Ambassador Bärtl: A well-known fact that historically started our alliance was the presence of three generations of Luxembourg kings on the Bohemian throne.

In recent history, I can mention the athletic triumphs of Josy Barthel and Emil Zátopek, the gods in trinkets at the [1952] Helsinki Olympics, the great support for the Czechoslovaks after the Soviet invasion in 1968, and the great relationship between Václav Havel and the Grand Dukes after the Velvet Revolution. Today, we are like-minded with our Luxembourg partners on many agendas.