The Czech Republic is undergoing the first test within its EU presidency – it is to find a joint stance within the EU on the war between Israel and the radical movement Hamas. In an interview with HN, Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek talked about the presidency, his relation to Václav Klaus, and about the prospects of his government.
The Czech presidency experienced a brisk start owing to the war in Gaza. What should be the role of Europe and of the Czech Republic there?
I went to Israel last year and talked to Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Olmert, Jordan’s King Abdullah, so it did not catch me unawares.
Our objective is to initiate a ceasefire and try to negotiate a truce. Which will not be easy. There are the February elections in Israel. For the time being, we have sent a mission headed by Foreign Affairs Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, who is travelling there with Foreign Relations Commissioner Benito Ferrero-Waldner, Javier Solana, Swedish minister Carl Bildt. French Foreign Minister Kouchner is there too, at the invitation of Karel Schwarzenberg.
Isn’t it rather like that French have got used to their role of a presiding country and want it to be their country holding the Middle East talks? Nicolas Sarkozy is going to go there too….
Sarkozy’s trip to Syria and Lebanon to see their soldiers had been planned for a long time. I talked to him on 31 December for about a quarter of an hour, and his activity is not a problem for me at all. In the end, both delegations will probably meet at Palestinian President Abbas.
Have you learnt something at EU summits that you could not learn in any theoretical training?
I have attended some ten meetings of the European Council, so I think I am now able to read the backstage moves, the unofficial talks. And what I found quite inspiring was the way that Nicolas Sarkozy led the European Council.
In what sense?
He led it like I lead the government. That means briskly.
Of course Václav Klaus disappointed me in 2008
Is there any situation or topic where the opinions and stances of President Klaus can help the Czech government during its talks within the European Union?
If I am interviewed by foreign media, then one of five questions always concerns Václav Klaus. I must say that I am starting to have an aversion to that.
I told the BBC recently: If you were to name the presidents of all European countries now, the only one you would remember would be Václav Klaus – and that is something I am proud of. And when he asked whether it bothers me that there is no EU flag at the Prague Castle, I said: I didn’t see a single European flag when travelling through the centre of London, and I saw one in Paris – crouching below a giant French flag.
But it is an increasing problem for me to defend some of his opinions because Václav Klaus is used to dominating the media scene, and not just in our country. He therefore searches for controversial topics that he specialises in and takes room from the others, so the Czech Republic at present is perceived through him rather than through the real local spectrum of opinion.
We asked whether it gives you any advantage.
Sometimes I can be “the good cop”, and he can play the role of the “bad one”. He sometimes presents an idea, that I also share, as harshly as only he can afford it as the president, but not I as the head of the administration. This enables me to set limits for discussion that then allow a comfortable movement.
But it’s a sort of a complication during the presidency, which is much more about finding a compromise than about opinions brought to a head. It is about the broadest common denominator, not about a blocking minority.
Is it clear already whether he would, for example, chair the EU-Russia summit where he would be the “nice policeman” and not the government?
I don’t know yet. The exact number of summits and their dates have not been set yet, the one with Russian should take place in Kazan somewhere in May probably. Not all summits will take place – for instance the one with Korea was shifted to our presidency by France, and the one with China was cancelled because of the Dalai Lama’s visit.
But the agreement is that some of the summits will be under his direction. There is time for that, they are organised six or eight weeks beforehand. When abroad, I repeat that Václav Klaus really is a professional, able to handle the role of a moderator totally without any problem. And I believe nobody would mind that he may make some remarks during the discussion.
Do you have to explain, not only to the media, but also to politicians, that it is really the government that sets foreign policy?
I would say I do so very often. I tell them that they overestimate it and demonise him needlessly, that Václav Klaus’s opinions on global warning are not that unusual in our country. And that, among other things, he raises the voices of those who have let themselves shout down a bit.
Even though Klaus’s opinions appear as very radical in the European Union, they basically copy the opinions of scientists that are rather sidelined at present because the issue of climate changes has been caught by business. Trading in waste, trading in cleanness, trading in emissions is so interesting that it has exceeded the original debate on whether or not the temperature on Earth has increased.
Do you perceive his New Year speech as a gesture of conciliation after the year 2008?
If you want the whole interview to deal with Václav Klaus, you should have said that before, and we did not have to do it at all.
Of course, Václav Klaus disappointed me last year. I am not going to hide it. The way he entered the events in ODS and how he expresses his dissatisfaction with the way we manage this country… At a time where we managed to keep the growth at 4 % – while other economies are in a recession already – and to cut unemployment to a level last seen here ten years ago.… But emotions are not part of politics. I have a vision, an idea, and if Václav Klaus does not join me on this path, I would only take it into account.
Obama could help ČSSD votes for radar
Is Barack Obama going to come to the Czech Republic during its presidency?
He will attend the G20 summit in London in early April, and then move to Strasbourg for a NATO meeting. And we would like him to come then for the meeting of all 27 EU members.
All member countries support it, and so does the European Commission, but we are waiting for Obama’s administration to take office on 20 January. Home affairs will of course be his priority. If the EU meeting with Obama is held in Prague, it would be a great honour; if it takes place in Brussels, it is not a problem either.
What we perceive as more important is the statement on the missile defense project. The statements so far have been largely positive, but we are waiting until he talks on behalf of the United States.
Do you believe that Obama’s stance could help ratify the radar treaties in the lower house?
It is definitely one of the reasons why it has been postponed. The thing is to make it possible even for non-coalition Czech deputies to vote for ratification, and a statement by Obama’s administration can bring a positive impulse in this respect. I regard it as a fundamental issue that is as important as the entry into NATO. So patience pays off here.
And only after the radar, there can be some progress in Lisbon Treaty ratification?
Yes, this is what the ODS congress decided on. Jiří Paroubek laughed at me, saying I am not able to control my deputies and Senators, but the congress resolution is unanimous and does provide for such a link. I do not think the Lisbon Treaty could go through the Senate – given the opinions of ODS Senators – unless the Chamber of Deputies ratifies the radar. But I may be wrong.
Are you going to go to the USA to say goodbye to George W. Bush?
I would like to. I am one of the few politicians who were invited to the White House and had to refuse the invitation because of problems at home. Despite all the reservations in the world and in Europe, I regard him as a big president, especially in his second term in office. And history will definitely prove that, like it did with Ronald Reagan.
He certainly made mistakes, like we all do, but I personally would forgive him. Although I might be the only politician in Europe to do so.
Frankly, do you expect the EU presidency to raise your popular preferences?
It is hard to communicate this to the home audience, it is impossible to build popularity on that. No statesman has benefited from the presidency. By contrast, for Austrian Chancellor Schüssel and Slovenian Prime Minister Jansa the presidency meant lost elections.
And from the other side – are you looking forward to any moment during the presidency?
If I wanted to ease it, then I would say I am looking forward to the end of the presidency. I reject the statements that it is a ceremonial issue. For half a year, we have to be ready to respond to new situations, organise debates, search for solutions…. I am not saying I am on the point of collapse. I just want to say that it is not fun.
Translated with permission by the Prague Daily Monitor.