Speeches

28. 8. 2017 23:55

Bohuslav Sobotka: Good neighbourly relations and international partnerships are crucial to the prosperity and security of our country

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka launched the regular meeting of heads of Czech embassies abroad, on 28 August 2017.
Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka launched the regular meeting of heads of Czech embassies abroad, on 28 August 2017.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka delivered a speech at the meeting of Heads of Embassies at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Monday 28 August. At the Czernin Palace, he spoke about the importance of international cooperation, both within the European Union and outside it. He emphasised good neighbourly relations, business opportunities and management of major international challenges.

Speech by Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka at the Ambassadors' meeting

Minister,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Please allow me to warmly welcome you in Prague at your annual meeting, which I have also attended in recent years to talk about some priorities of Czech foreign policy.

I am glad that the Czech Republic is not only a country that is successful and stable, but one that also continues to be very active economically and diplomatically. The fact that we are and must be diplomatically active stems from the nature of our economy. We are a country based on export. We are a country with a population of 10.5 million inhabitants; we have an industrial base that needs access to international and foreign markets. And, of course, today, the European Union's common market is not sufficient for us; we also need to export elsewhere. Therefore, in terms of economy, the economic foundation of prosperity of the Czech Republic implies the need to be active in the field of diplomacy, and I am glad that our government has performed very actively and dynamically in a wide range of situations.

I would like to mention a few topics that I consider important, and current, in the world today. I shall start here, where we are: in Central Europe, our government puts a long-term emphasis on friendly and stable relations with our neighbours in the region in which our country is located. We have several formats that we have created and which, in my opinion, work very well and most practically. I would like to bring attention to the first of the ways in which we contribute to good relations in Central Europe, and to stability, and that is through our strategic dialogue with Germany. We started to plan it more thoughtfully and I think that has shown very concrete results. I am glad that we are making progress within a topic that has been the ‘Cinderella’ between us and the Germans for a long time, quite incomprehensibly: the development of transport infrastructure, including rail transport infrastructure. And the latest news from Germany, who puts top priority on the fast rail link between Dresden and Prague, clearly shows that our diplomacy has been successful in this direction.

We have been equally successful in putting the emphasis on science and research cooperation, where the first important agreements were signed. I also think that not only does our focus on relations with the German Federal Government work very well, so too does the significant attention that the Czech Government has given to the relations with the Saxon and the Bavarian governments, including the promotion of cooperation in a number of areas. This too, I think, has brought very positive and concrete results.

So, the first of the tools that we will continue to use here in the Central European region is a strategic dialogue with our neighbour, Germany.

The second important instrument is cooperation within the V4 group. I think the last years have clearly shown that V4 is significant for us, that it is a practical tool for promoting our national interests within the European Union and its territory. V4 is also a key tool we use to reach consensus and understanding with our closest neighbours in the region.

I am convinced that V4 has played an important role in the European Union in the debate on the resolution of the migration crisis, and that V4 has also played an important and constructive role in defining new objectives and new directions for the future of the European Union after Brexit.

What is particularly important for us in the Central European region is the relationship with Slovakia; we continue in the form of very close cooperation and coordination, and we also continue in the format of joint government meetings. The closest meeting will take place this Monday when we meet together with the Slovak government, again in Lednice, as we do every year. Our coordination with the Slovaks within V4 has its meaning and importance; I think that Czech-Slovak cooperation is an important axis, perhaps even the backbone of the V4 functioning. Our cooperation and coordination within European agendas, at European level, is also significant, which was particularly apparent when Slovakia held the presidency of the European Union.

Cooperation with Slovakia as our nearest neighbour was complemented by the Slavkov format; we also invited Austria to cooperate with us, who in the past seemed less interested in communicating with this part of Central Europe. And I think the Slavkov format is finally starting to blossom, after its initial problems and ‘childhood illnesses’. The format even works outside its specific topics; the last meeting in Salzburg, where French President E. Macron was present, shows that this format can play a specific role in communicating with Austria and other countries of the older EU member states.

When I talk about the formats we use for cooperation in Central Europe, I also need to mention the special dialogue and close relations we have with Poland. Poland is an important country to us, not only in terms of economy. It is a country with which we maintain close relations, among other things, by organizing joint meetings of our governments. In recent days, our dealings with French President Macron have confirmed that we want to develop a strategic partnership with France as well. Over the past few years, we have greatly increased exchanges and visits at the highest political level between the Czech Republic and France. We have been trying to find topics for cooperation in the European Union territory. I am glad that President Macron has confirmed that he will be coming to the Czech Republic in the spring, and we want to sign a concrete action plan for our strategic cooperation with France for the next four years. And I think that our diplomacy should now be focused on preparing the concrete content of this action plan. That concludes my view of the position of Central Europe, specifically.

I would like to express my views on the subject of economic diplomacy now, which we will certainly discuss widely during our meeting. I want to thank you for all the steps that have been taken successfully in the framework of the coordinated procedure of our ministries and the state administration. Our focus on territories such as Southeast Asia brings concrete results either in terms of investments or in the form of tourism to the benefit of the Czech Republic.

Europe is undergoing major changes. What is influencing Europe at the moment is undoubtedly the debate about Brexit. I think that the Czech Republic should play an active role here in terms of formulating the European position towards negotiations with the United Kingdom. These negotiations will certainly not be easy, but I think there is a change of position on the British side. In my opinion, some topics that have been taboo in British politics will find their way to the British political scene under the pressure of the specific issues that Brexit brings. So I firmly believe that we will be able to take advantage of the limited time allocated for the conclusion of the Brexit agreement, or to find an agreement on transitional periods in order to damage our relations with Great Britain as little as possible, including economic relations. That must matter to us. We absolutely cannot leave our citizens living in the UK, and we have to ensure that their rights, which they have acquired in good faith as citizens of the European Union, are not affected in any way within the framework of Brexit.

I will return to Europe in a moment, but please allow me to comment on the important platform related to our foreign policy; namely the humanitarian and development aid provided by the Czech Republic. I am very glad that we, as Czechs, have been able to define the priorities in the context of the crises that the European Union has been dealing with, and that we have defined them with regard to our interest in stabilizing the regions of the Middle East, North Africa, or the Balkans. Especially in connection with the migration crisis, our with activities should dampen, reduce or stop migratory pressure towards Europe.

The Czech Republic was deliberately and systematically active when it came to creating and implementing a fund for North Africa or a fund for Syria. Of course, you know we are among the largest donors in terms of the establishment and construction of the Libyan Coast Guard. We are one of the countries that has helped the Western Balkan migration route. We have helped individual states that have been subjected to strong migratory pressure. We are one of the countries that are not indifferent to the situation in refugee camps hosting refugees from Syria or other areas of conflict today. And we are one of the countries that contribute to creating decent and humane conditions for these people, whether in Lebanon, Turkey or in Jordan. 

I am proud of the fact that the Czech Republic has been an active part of the fight against the Islamic State in recent years. The Islamic State is in a defensive position in Iraq, but it is still operating in Syria and Libya. The fight will undoubtedly continue, but I think the Czech Republic has acted responsibly by being part of the coalition. We belonged to its diplomatically most active part, and supported Iraq in particular in the fight against the Islamic State, whether in the delivery of ammunition or L-159 aircrafts, or training Iraqi pilots or Iraqi policemen. All these acts carry an absolutely specific trace to the Czech Republic and we have proved to be a responsible member of the international community. We have emerged as a country that has very concretely contributed to the fight against terrorism, and if the Islamic state is defeated in the Near East, the Czech Republic, though it's help, will be one of the countries that has contributed specifically to it.

When I now return to Europe and the European Union, despite the fact that the economy and security are changing, the Czech Republic has long accentuated and will continue to accentuate the long-term support of the expansion of the European Union and the functioning of the Eastern Partnership through V4.

Europe is now going through a debate about its future. The enthusiasm for further enlargement of the European Union, especially in the western part, is dropping sharply. That is why I think our country should be one of those who insist that Europe is an open project. That countries that qualify for membership in the European Union, including countries in the Western Balkans, should have a chance to have a European perspective.

As Czechs, we should also continue to pay attention to the development of the Eastern Partnership. We have made intense investments into relations with countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova. The European Union has already opened its market within the framework of association agreements. The visa regime was liberalized towards Ukraine. These are all concrete steps that we have supported these countries with, and we should continue to pay attention to support reforms in these countries. When I talk about reforms, the reform of the European Union is what will have to be at the centre of our attention in terms of a broader foreign policy perspective.

The migration crisis and, in my opinion, the failure of EU institutions to manage it, and the eurozone crisis before that, and now Brexit – all lead to the fact that Europe must change. The debate, which is also based on the Rome Declaration, is a debate into which the Czech Republic has entered with two specific priorities that we are now trying to develop, and continue to work on.

The first priority is Europe as a place that will be truly safe for European citizens. The other priority is Europe as a place where the standard of living between the more developed and the less developed countries will be brought closer.

I am very pleased that, in terms of a secure Europe, positive results have been achieved in the last few months. I am also pleased that the Czech Republic is one of the key countries today pushing for the strengthening of defence cooperation. This is not creating a rival for the North Atlantic Alliance, but rather is encouraging Europe to have a stronger defensive pillar. And this is an area where we can work very well with the countries that are at the heart of Europe and the founding countries of the European Union. I am happy that the Czech Republic is among the countries that have been preparing very practically and pragmatically for enhanced cooperation in the field of defence.

However, the situation with regard to convergence is more complex. It is clear that we must defend all the tools we see as useful for enhancing convergence within Europe. The first tool is a common market. This also applies to the free movement of workers, because here we can counter the efforts of the European Union's single market to break through protectionist measures which, of course, could have a negative impact on our ability to work within the European Union. We must strive to maintain and improve the common European market, as well as to ensure that the market, especially the labour market, does not experience the failures witnessed in the UK before Brexit.

This is why the debate on the Broadcasting Directive is so important in Europe today. It is also in the interest of the Czech Republic to agree on the reform of the Broadcasting Directive. It is a topic that divides Europe today and if we do not reach agreement, in time we risk that individual member states will tend to modify these things on their own. This will mean only greater bureaucracy and limitations for our enterprises and our citizens. Let us therefore seek an agreement at a European level, because it can be more practical for the functioning of the Czech Republic within the single market and within the single labour market.

Convergence also entails the use of European funds. It is clear that the European budget will decrease after the departure of the UK. There is a very low willingness of net payers to increase their contributions to the European budget. And in this debate, it will be very important to maintain the role of European funds in the modernisation of our part of Europe. Because, if we talk about tools of convergence and living standards, European funds are a real tool. And it is in the interest of the Czech Republic to maintain the existence of structural funds in the future.

We also need wage convergence. We need convergence of the standard of living. And it is important that, in the context of our economic policy change, we also make it clear to our partners that we do not want exports of wage dumping in the Czech Republic. We do not want to be considered a cheap labour zone, a zone where production is relocated because of the expectation that the Czechs will not want to be paid better and more in the future for the work they do. Our position within Europe must be different, more ambitious, we need to concentrate on production with higher added value. We must concentrate on well-paid jobs and support for science and research.

When I talked about the reform in Europe, there are further shifts pending in the eurozone. We do not have the euro in the Czech Republic. We have committed ourselves to accepting the euro in the future, but we do not have a specific date yet. However, it is clear that the euro area will be moving. Countries such as France and Germany will strive for greater and faster integration, for enhanced cooperation between the eurozone countries in a number of areas. The Czech Republic must follow this discussion very closely. We cannot and must not allow greater integration of the eurozone to mean that decisions will be made that will impact us and that we will not have the ability to influence them in any way. In my opinion, this is the greatest risk that may arise from the further integration of the eurozone. That is why it is important for us to prevent gaps between those countries with the euro and those without it. It is therefore important that we trust each other and strive for a coherent European Union of all member states. And because we want to express it specifically, the Czech Republic came up with the idea of ​​an observer status. This status could apply, within eurozone country negotiations, to countries that do not have the euro as a gesture of trust and cohesion of the European Union. We shall see whether this proposal gets broader support, but I think this could be one of the ways to prevent the creation of a gap between the eurozone and the other member states of the European Union.

Ladies and gentlemen, I could go on for a long time. Naturally, there are myriad topics. My goal was not to present a comprehensive speech that would cover the entire Czech foreign policy. I wanted to focus on some practical things, on priorities we have been working on as the Czech government, and which I see as very important during the rest of my mandate. The government that will emerge from the elections in the Chamber of Deputies should also develop these topics. Please allow me to conclude my speech by thanking you all for you cooperation. I think the cooperation in recent years has done much for the benefit of our country. I am happy that our work has brought success. We really have a large amount of positive results. Our country is thriving. It is a country that is safe and has a good reputation in the world. And after all, it is a country that is successful in getting to foreign markets. It is a country that successfully acquires partners, allies, friends, and I think that it is a very important advantage and value in the world today.

I want to thank you all for your work for Czech diplomacy and for your cooperation over the past months and years.

Thank you. 

Bohuslav Sobotka, Prime Minister of the Czech Republic

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