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Gaza, gas and EU politics

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From the very beginning, the Czech presidency had to deal with the burden of “2G” – the two crises: Gaza and gas. The bombing of Israel and the couner strike in the Gaza strip, as well as the interrupted supplies of Russian gas via Ukraine required an immediate reaction.

In both cases, the Czech presidency, together with the European Commission and backed by EU countries, launched diplomatic missions in the Middle East and in Kiev and Moscow. The rapid reaction of the Czech government was to a great extent enabled not only by its geographical location and historical experience, but also by the main presidency priority – we have called energy security a top priority long before 1 January despite the fact that some described our concerns about Europe’s vulnerability in its dependance on imported energy sources as exaggerated. Likewise, in our plan to redefine the relation with Israel, we pointed out that the EU’s role in the Middle East process has to be more important than just being “a big payer, but not a big player”.

Impact on EU

So if anybody questioned the meaning of the Czech presidency’s priorities a month ago, now he himself has to regard them as key issues for the whole European Union. Today it is obvious that we did not criticise the dependance on a single source of energy raw materials just with respect to our own experience and that we did not call for a more pro-active approach to the Middle East situation just with respect to the historic relations between the Czech Republic and Israel. We pointed with an increased sensitivity to possible risks that – unfortunately – have come true in both cases. And although the nature of both conflicts is different, and I do not want to compare a conflict in which innocent people die with an economic conflict in which people are “only” hostages, they do have one thing in common: They both escalated outside the European Union but have a significant impact on it.

It has become obvious that the European Union is unable to use direct tools to solve these crises other than intensive negotiations and calling for compliance with international agreements and rights, whose apparently deliberate violation was at the beginning of both problems. At the moment, Hamas is observing a ceasefire and Israeli troops are pulling out of Gaza, Russia is supplying gas to the Ukrainian transit network and the European union can regard the current situation as a success. But I am looking back – to the time preceding the interruption of gas supplies and the launch of Israel’s military operation. Was everything all right then?

Hamas’s attacks on Israel did not come as a surprise. Last year, the terrorists fired some 1,800 missiles at Israeli territory and a few times deployed new missiles with a range of more than 40 km, putting almost a million people in danger. Israel warned repeatedly that it would take action. Likewise, the Russian-Ukrainian dispute over natural gas prices and transit fees jeopardised supplies to Europe in 2006 as well as in the autumn of 2007. Again, no surprise. The EU’s role is not complete with the calming down of the situation in Gaza and with the resumed flow of gas. Let us take the “2G” experience as a lesson. If we do not raise our sensitivity to first warning signals of instability in areas that are important to the EU, the situation may suddenly worsen.

This is also true for less visible cases than the burning houses in Israel and Gaza and the cooling production halls and households in European countries dependant on Russian gas. When talking about the violation of international agreements, we could mention human rights in Cuba, contracts on nuclear arms in Iran, copyright issues in China… If the EU maintained its stance that this is only an “insignificant” or “temporary” violation, its weight at the international level would decrease further.

My experience with “2G” also includes what has come now, and paradoxically it is a sort of an uneasiness. The threat rests in the EU’s possible self-satisfaction with the “return to normal”. There are still unanswered questions: Would Israel stop its military operations if it did not regard the mission complete? Would Russia resume gas supplies if the situation in Ukraine did not meet its expectations? The answers to this can only be found in Jerusalem and Moscow; I do not want to answer these questions even though I have been to those places and talked both to Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It is not for us to answer. But we should think about what would be our stance.

Do not look surprised

If the EU-27 is to play a really significant role on the global scene, it has to be able to react promptly to the current needs and developments, but also insist on its long-term positions. In the given case, this involves a new contract for the European-Israeli partnership because the existing one expires in April, as well as support for Ukraine’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic structure because only this focus and preparation can help it restore the weakened EU’s confidence.

If the events of the past weeks, however dramatic they were, changed our stances on key issues, it would mean that we were not ready for them and that we do not have a deep knowledge of the international political environment. Let us be more critical about ourselves and not fear our political rivals. And at the same time, we have to remind our partners earlier and more loudly that they have to follow the values that bind us together. And that then they have our support. I am a conservative and that is why I believe in upholding existing values.

The author is the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic and chairman of the ruling Civic Democratic Party (ODS).

Translated with permission by the Prague Daily Monitor.

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