Czech ambassadors from around the world congregated in Prague this week for their annual round of consultations. Among the foreign policy issues on their agenda were security, economic diplomacy, EU-related matters and regional cooperation. During a small break in their busy agenda, I met with the Czech Ambassador to France Petr Drulák to talk about Franco-Czech relations, the country’s position in the EU and the role of the Visegrad alliance. I began by asking for his take on Prime Minister Sobotka’s recent proposal that the Czech Republic should seek observer status at meetings of the Eurozone.
“I think that this idea presented by the prime minister is very useful, because right now we are in a situation where we have been preparing for accession to the Eurozone, which is one of the obligations stemming from the treaty signed, on the other hand we do not actually have a clear political consensus on the timing, on when we should accede. In these circumstances, given our commitment on the one hand and a lack of political consensus on the other, this is a useful step in the direction towards the Eurozone – having observer status and being part of the debate. So I think this is a very useful idea to be tested with our partners in the European Union.”
What do you say to the criticism that the Czech Republic wants to be part of the debate, but is not willing to accept full responsibility for the decisions taken?
“Accession to the Eurozone is a very important step. You need to have clear political consensus on that, it is not something you can do in a hurry, only to find out, after two or three years, that there is significant opposition to it. In this respect I think it is better to prefer quality over speed.”
Do you not feel that, due to the implications of Brexit and talk of further integration within the EU hard-core, the Czech Republic is coming under increasing pressure to come to a decision as to whether it wants to be in the fast or slow lane of the EU? Is it not at a crossroads, as some people say?
“The coming months will show, we will see what will be the dynamics after the German elections. Obviously nobody can be happy about Brexit, that is detrimental to the EU project and even more detrimental to the UK, I would say. It is something that will damage everyone. For us the EU is not something that is a choice, for us it is a necessity. And that may be the difference between the UK on the one hand and the Czech Republic on the other. For us it is a necessity and we have to find a way of materializing this necessity, how to put into practice the fact that we need to be close to the leaders of European integration. And the concrete step will depend on what will happen this fall and in the first months of next year. So, right now, it probably does not make much sense to speculate about it.”
”The fact that we were able to build trust in Central Europe – that is the biggest achievement.”
The thing is, that if there is further integration within the EU hard-core and there is increasingly a two-tier Europe, then where will that leave the Czech Republic, if it stays out of the fast lane?
“Well, I am not sure that we are going to stay out of the fast lane because there are several projects which symbolize the European future; some of these projects are cantered around the Eurozone, others are centred around the common European security and the position of Czechia on the common European security is actually quite clear – we want to be there from the very beginning. And, on the subject of the Eurozone, we need to find consensus on this and we are sending signals to our partners that we are here to be counted with and this idea of being observers is part of the strategy.”
For some time the Czech Republic has been stressing the advantages of close cooperation within the Visegrad group of states, in order to bolster it negotiating position in Brussels and better defend the country’s interests. Indeed, the Visegrad group has been something of a thorn in the side of countries such as Germany and France. But in recent weeks and days we have seen a slight change, as if the alliance is weakening …Slovakia has said that being in the fast lane is more important than Visegrad cooperation, Poland and Hungary have their own specific domestic and foreign policy …where does that leave the Czech Republic? How important is Visegrad for the Czech Republic now?
“That’s a very easy question. To ask how important is Visegrad is like asking how important your neighbours are. And ,of course, our neighbours are important. You do not choose your neighbours, you live with your neighbours and you try to have the best possible relations with them. Visegrad helps in this respect. When we reflect on Visegrad cooperation sometimes it is reduced to this function which is there but which is I think the least important of all the Visegrad functions – and that is the coordination of foreign policy. If you look at the past record of Visegrad in this respect it is not exemplary. It is rarely the case that we really coordinate our stands until the very end. We are able to put an important issue on the EU agenda together and we coordinate up to a certain stage and then we usually go our own ways. That has been the experience with Visegrad all the time."
"But we should not forget the other functions of Visegrad which are really important – and that is a contribution to good-neighbourly relations, mutual trust in Central Europe, there are the activities of the Visegrad Fund, which funds all kinds of cultural and scientific research projects, these are very important achievements and I do not believe that anyone would want to jeopardize them. So of course, there is this dimension of European cooperation, it is there, but it is often over-estimated. For me Visegrad was always very important primarily because of good-neighbourly cooperation. The key slogan of the Czech presidency of Visegrad two years ago was “V4 Trust”. The fact that we were able to build trust in Central Europe – that is the biggest achievement and the Czech Republic will see to it that we keep this, that we have trust among ourselves.”
How is Czech foreign policy viewed abroad?
“I do not have enough experience to talk about that in general, I am ambassador to France so I will comment on that. In France I have to say that the Czech image is very positive. It is a positive image of a country which is, on the one hand, in Central Europe and one of the newer-member states, on the other hand, it is a country which is committed to the European project, to the EU, a country that would like to have as good relations as possible with key European actors ( France, Germany and so on) and with European institutions. So the image with which I am confronted, among the people who are aware of Czechia and of our policy and diplomacy, is actually rather positive. And we should not forget that it is not just about politics –the cultural image is very important and the Czech Republic is very well perceived as a cultural country, a country with important cultural achievements in literature in the arts, and I have to say that the French audience is very attentive to this and they appreciate us in this respect.”
The Czech Republic often stresses the need for EU reform, particularly now, in the wake of Brexit, what kind of EU does the Czech Republic want?
“You would find a lot of people who have these Franco-Czech elements and who are like bridges between the two countries.”
"That is too big a question for me, but in general, almost everyone today stresses the need for EU reform. One of the best examples is French President Macron, who is, on the one hand, a very committed European but who, on the other, is also very aware of the fact that Europe needs to be reformed. And it is my impression that people like our prime minister and foreign minister are very much on the same wave-length, committed Europeans but on the other hand, sometimes rather dissatisfied with the way Brussels is working, being sometimes too bureaucratic, sometimes making political decisions which should be done by the member states and so on. So there are all kinds of issues that need to be addressed and asking for reform does not mean being against the EU, on the contrary for me it is a testimony of European commitment.”
France is one of the countries that has criticized the Czech Republic for not meeting its obligations within the EU. I would just mention the comment made by President Macron about the Visegrad states using the EU as a supermarket where they pick what they want and leave the rest. Has that made negotiations on a bilateral level more difficult for you?
“I am not sure whether it was Czechia that was targeted, because that was not my impression. So I do not believe that this criticism, which was voiced, was actually against us. In the talks which we have in Paris we do not feel to be a target of such criticism.”
Are we a target because we are not taking in more migrants?
“You know, I have to say that the French position is very realistic on this. Czechia is actually doing quite a lot in this migrant crisis and it is wrong to focus the whole debate on how many migrants you have received, because Czechia has invested a lot into helping the third countries and the French are quite aware of this. I am not saying we are in total agreement on everything as regards migration, clearly we aren’t, but the dialogue with France on this issue is not really painful, it is actually quite a reasonable and mature exchange of information and coordination .The obsession with quotas is over and this has actually never come from Paris, these arguments.”
The issue of so-called posted workers from low-wage countries, one of the points discussed by President Macron and Prime Minister Sobotka recently, highlights the big divides across the EU and the very slow convergence process. Can this problem be resolved under the present circumstances, what can be done to speed up convergence?
“I believe it can be resolved. Obviously, there are different perspectives here, between France and Czechia and other countries and, as you say, it is the result of a lack of real convergence between the levels of prosperity. But, I would not exaggerate the differences, because it is quite clear that we do not see our future, the future of Czechia, as being a cheap labour country. That is not the kind of future we imagine. We would like to be a country that competes on other advantages than cheap labour; we would like to compete on exceptional skills, on knowledge, on location and other issues, because if we just concentrate on cheap labour then we actually lock ourselves out from prosperity.”
“On the other hand, it is quite clear that we have certain comparative advantages which we need to keep in our transition to the future when we will no longer be a cheap labour country. So there are clear differences in emphasis, but I think the recent meetings between Prime Minister Sobotka and President Macron actually showed that that there is considerable space for dialogue and for compromise. So I believe that we will be able to find common ground because there are people on both sides who want to find a viable compromise; both on the side of France and the Central European countries. So, in this respect, I am optimistic. You asked about how to achieve convergence, again that seems to me quite a big question. It is a question about our model of economic growth, because in the 1990s we started with the cheap labour model, which was probably inevitable at that time, but now we need to make the necessary investments into education, and also to be more selective about the kind of foreign investments we will favour so as to build our economy in a way which favours high skills, high value-added products, rather than cheap labour.”
“Paris is a city that gives you new impulses all day long; you always have something to think about, something to work on.”
Czech-French relations have traditionally been very good. In what areas do the Czechs and the French most easily find common ground? Is it music? Architecture? Visual art?
“The area of culture, that you mentioned, is where it is probably easiest. There has always been a strong influence of French culture here in Czechia and there has been a significant presence of Czech artists, writers in France. In our recent history we have people like František Kupka, a great Czech painter, who is also greatly acknowledged and recognized by the French. Next year we will have a great retrospective of Kupka’s work in one of the most prominent Paris museums. Then there are writers like Milan Kundera, someone who is appreciated, who is seen as a great Czech writer and a great French writer as well. So you would find a lot of people who have these Franco-Czech elements and who are like bridges between the two countries. There are generations of Czechs who have grown-up on French comedies from the 1960s and 1970s, Luis de Funes is someone who is well-known in Czechia, probably better known than many Czech actors, so these are the things that bring us closer together.”
2018 is an important anniversary year for the Czech Republic. Are you planning any interesting events in Paris?
“Yes, there will be a host of official events which are linked with our common history, because the Czechoslovak army was actually founded in France and there are many cemeteries where Czechoslovak soldiers are buried. So we expect to have ceremonies that will commemorate our common history, but there will also be a lot of cultural activities and scientific events. We would like to have conferences on the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918 and on the invasion of 1968, reflecting on the meaning of these events, we plan to organize musical events, concerts, and so on. So there will be a host of activities which we are now preparing and I hope that by the end of the year we will have a list of the events for which have found enough funding and can present them to the public. Right now we have informal lists and we are talking with the people who could participate and those who could contribute to it financially.”
Petr Drulák is a political scientist. From 2004 to 2013 he was head of the Prague Institute of International Relations. He later served as deputy foreign minister in the Sobotka government and in February, 2017 he was appointed Czech ambassador to France.
The Czech embassy in Paris is located in a very beautiful spot, near the Eiffel Tower.
What is it like to live and work in such surroundings and what do you like most about living in Paris?
“We are, indeed, very lucky. It is a privileged location close to the Eiffel Tower, so for us it is a privilege. It was a very wise decision by then foreign minister Edvard Beneš to buy this building for the Czechoslovak state in the 1920s and we are benefiting from it.”
“For me personally what I appreciate most about life in Paris is that this is a city that gives you new impulses all day long; there are so many events, political, cultural, economic, so you always have something to think about, to work on. It doesn’t allow you to be lazy or ignorant, it sort of forces you to be active and that’s what I like about life in Paris.