24. 8. 2015 23:03

Prime Minister at diplomatic mission meeting: foreign and domestic policy are more interconnected than ever before

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka spoke at a meeting of heads of Czech missions abroad, 24 August 2015. Source: M. Trnková.
Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka spoke at a meeting of heads of Czech missions abroad, 24 August 2015. Source: M. Trnková.
On Monday 24 August 2015, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka attended the annual meeting of the heads of Czech missions abroad. At Czernin Palace – the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – where the meeting was held, he stressed, for example, the need for a well-functioning network of missions and highlighted the intrinsic value of economic diplomacy. He thanked the mission representatives in attendance for their work.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka’s address at a meeting with the heads of diplomatic missions:

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Foreign and domestic policy are more interconnected than ever before. Events at the other end of the world to us can often have an immediate impact. The world and Europe are developing, and the security situation in the European Union’s immediate neighbourhood has altered dramatically.

This is one of the reasons why, last year, we decided  to upgrade three key programming documents essential to foreign policy: the Foreign Policy Concept, the Security Strategy and the Plan of Action of the Czech Republic in the European Union.

They all reflect our conviction that the Czech Republic must actively engage in foreign policy, harness, as much as we can, the positive potential offered to us by the globalised world, and strive to curb or eliminate adverse foreign influences on our country.

In my speech last year, I identified three regions as key pillars of our foreign policy: Central Europe, the European Union and the Euro-Atlantic area. We have achieved significant results in all of these areas.

In Central Europe, we are working hard on strengthening bilateral relations with our neighbours and on developing regional cooperation. We have opened strategic dialogue with Germany. This will help us as we continue to strengthen our mutual relations, formulate common interests and seek strategic intersections in decision-making in the European Union and other international organisations. I am confident that soundly configured communication channels and sterling relations will prove their worth in the future, even in difficult situations. We are also significantly strengthening relations with our immediate neighbours, Saxony and Bavaria.

The nurturing of the extraordinary bond that links us to Slovakia remains a constant of Czech foreign policy. At intergovernmental level, this is reflected not only in the annual joint meetings of our governments, but often also in the coordination of our positions within the EU. This year’s third Czech-Polish intergovernmental consultations also confirmed the high level of cooperation with Poland and the interest in moving forward with this partnership.

The Visegrad Group remains a key platform for cooperation in Central Europe for us. In July, our Slovak colleagues handed over the baton of the Visegrad presidency to us. We are continuing their work in energy cooperation and numerous other areas. Strengthening Visegrad Group cohesion is a key challenge for us. In this context, I recall our successful joint front at the June European Council on the European Commission’s proposal to establish mandatory quotas for asylum seekers, and our joint initiatives on the digital agenda and the common foreign and security policy. Our presidency will continue to develop these priorities.

Although Visegrad remains the most important form of Central European cooperation for us, at the beginning of the year we also launched Czech-Slovak-Austrian cooperation in the “Slavkov (Austerlitz) Format” by holding a summit of prime ministers. The aim is to contribute not only to the development of trilateral cooperation between neighbours, but also to deepen and consolidate our relations with Austria.

Ladies and gentlemen, I think we agree that the European Union has had to face up to many really tough trials over the past year. Brexit and Grexit have become commonly used watchwords. Apocalyptic images of migrants on overcrowded boats landing on the coasts of Malta, Lampedusa and Sicily, or flowing through the Balkans to Hungary, have become everyday news items across Europe. Likewise, television screens have been filled with images of anti-Islamic demonstrations in Germany and anti-German demonstrations in Greece. We were all shocked by the terrorist attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

However, I feel it is important that Europe has the capacity to meet all of these challenges by following common procedure. We hammered out an agreement on another package of aid to Greece to avert its bankruptcy. Despite many predictions to the contrary, the euro area has not fallen apart.

We do not want to see the euro area segregated from the rest of the EU. We do not want to create a union within the Union, because our country will become part of the euro area as soon as it is ready. The approved Government Concept of the Czech Republic’s Policy in the EU anticipates our active preparations to join the euro area.

The fact that we are tackling problems together at the negotiating table, and not by force, by the threat of the use of force, or, for example, by closing markets or internal borders remains, in my view, the European Union’s most important benefit for our country and our citizens. Europe must continue to show its strength and solidarity.

A functional and united European Union, promoting the principles of freedom, justice and solidarity, will remain a key imperative of our European policy in the coming period. We act as an active, pro-European oriented country. Our priorities for involvement in the EU are determined by efforts to maintain the unity of the EU, given the current centrifugal tendencies, to maintain a single institutional and legal framework, and to spearhead an effective fight against tax fraud and evasion, crimes which conflict with our desire for social justice.

Our foreign policy should therefore also have a social dimension. We must seek to preserve the European social model, which is an important cultural achievement. Applying the principle of solidarity and social harmony is a core European value. In practice, we can present good results in Czech social policy, pass on our good practice, keep track of international trends and emerging standards, and promote international social dialogue. Besides activities within the EU, there are opportunities for more active involvement in the International Labour Organisation, the OECD and other organisations, as well as a decent range of development and human rights projects.

Against the background of current events, I would now like to dwell a little on the subject of migration. The realisation that the migration problem is an issue for all of us is central to resolving the current situation in the EU. This is a challenge that we cannot sidestep or run away from. And the stakes are high, with the entire system of Schengen cooperation and the free movement of persons within the EU – one of the cornerstones of European integration – in the balance.

The Government, aware of this fact, assumes its share of responsibility for resolving the present situation, while being mindful of the fact that this is a long and complicated journey. We have our own schemes to assist refugees in third countries. We are continuing the humanitarian evacuation of disabled people under the MEDEVAC programme.

We participate, on a voluntary basis, in those distribution mechanisms that are launched: in the next two years we will resettle 400 people from third countries and relocate 1,100 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece. I am convinced that this offer to European partners is a strong gesture of solidarity and that we truly view the the refugee crisis as a European problem.

Much more attention than before should be paid to the causes of the migration crisis. We must try to help to stabilise the countries of origin and transit of migrants – in particular the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East – and effectively battle the traffickers.

The single most important factor in stopping the wave of migration would be the end of war in Syria and Libya. The EU must have a clear durable priority – peace in its neighbourhood. The international community, including the EU, must pay the utmost and highest-priority attention to halting the war in Syria. Incidentally, almost one in two illegal migrants detained in our country comes from Syria. Ahead of the war, four million people had fled there!

Unfortunately, the missions of various intermediaries have not yet been successful. These conflicts will now require the enduring attention of states and international organisations at the highest level.

We must also streamline our return policy and border protection. And we need to discuss these issues more with the source countries of migration and transit countries. In this respect, I am pleased that November’s Valletta summit on migration issues will also be attended by representatives of African states. A similar conference should certainly take place in relation to the Balkans and Turkey, too.

Finally, in the long run we must contribute to good governance in the countries of origin, to economic development and to efforts at reining in and mitigating the impacts of climate change, whether through bilateral development cooperation or in international forums such as this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

Only when countries of origin of migration are able to protect the lives and property of their citizens and offer them the prospect of a decent life will migrants perhaps stop risking death in the desert or at sea.

In the light of current debates, we almost forget the positive aspects of migration. An active migration policy and the ability to attract the best minds in the world have made economies such as the United States, Germany, Australia or Canada the most competitive in the world. The European Union cannot get by for long without controlled migration, either.

Some of our key foreign-policy interests, however, also lie outside the European Union. An important region on EU borders is the Western Balkans. This year, I have personally met – and am due to meet further – leaders of almost all countries in the region; next week, I will be in Belgrade to see Prime Minister Vučić for the third time. Our goal is to help the Western Balkan countries in their transition and path towards the EU. Only by full integration can we ensure that the region will not fall again into the vortex of ethnic and interethnic intolerance. I applaud the recent progress made by candidate countries as they prepare for membership, with Serbia and Montenegro having done a particularly good job and deserving our support in bracing for rapid entry into the EU.

Regrettably, in this region the positive steps are sometimes juxtaposed, in certain countries, with passivity of political representation and long-standing, entrenched political crises. This is another reason for the European Union to maintain steadfast vigilance in relation to the Western Balkans, as the region’s stability is crucial to the security and prosperity of the EU. This is becoming all the more acute in the face of the migration crisis. The Western Balkans are also a priority for our Visegrad presidency.

I also believe it is important to make headway in the development of the European Neighbourhood Policy. For us, both its eastern dimension, the Eastern Partnership, and the Southern Neighbourhood are important. The arc of instability that stretches from Ukraine to the Sahel is a major challenge to the security of Europe and the entire Euro-Atlantic area. Europe cannot turn a blind eye to and isolate itself from developments in this area, but must seek new approaches and solutions that take into account our security interests and the expectations of partner countries and their citizens.

In an unsettled security environment, I see a guarantee of safety – more than ever – in solid anchoring in the Euro-Atlantic structures. My Government is doing everything possible for the Czech Republic to remain a stalwart and valued ally. In this respect, the Czech Republic contributes to the implementation of NATO’s Readiness Action Plan Action, supports EU maritime operations in the Mediterranean, and is actively involved in combating the threat posed by the Islamic State.

I would say that one of the important strategic decisions taken in the year and a half of my Government has been the commitment to make a gradual increase in defence spending to 1.4% of GDP by 2020. The army budget increased significantly in 2015 after seven years of decline, and will grow further in 2016 and 2017. This will allow the military to begin meeting our commitments stemming from NATO membership with gusto.

I have high hopes for the preparation of a new EU global strategy, having mandated the June European Council to draw up this document. There was consensus that the forthcoming strategy should be comprehensive, touching on a wide range of policies that affect the EU’s involvement in the world. We should play a hands-on role in the preparations for this document.

I consider the United States to be a key ally of Europe and a guarantor of the security of the Euro-Atlantic area. Maintaining US involvement in Europe and ramping up European states’ share in safeguarding the security of the Alliance are important to ensure that NATO is able to confront current security challenges.

The agreement on Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership will be a vital element in strengthening transatlantic ties. We are pleased that Congress has granted the US President the power to negotiate this agreement, although negotiations will be long and difficult as we progress towards the final text.

It is clear that the problems that we view primarily as security threats, such as migration and terrorism, cannot be tackled by force alone. Accordingly, it is important to press not only for increased defence spending, but also for capacity development in external development cooperation and humanitarian aid. In this context, I would also like to bring home the Czech Republic’s long-standing emphasis on human rights protection and human dignity, which is an uncrossable line of our foreign policy.

The key task of our foreign policy remains economic diplomacy. The Czech Republic is a heavily export-led economy with a high proportion of industry. Exports and incoming foreign investment, therefore, are of paramount importance to our prosperity. The influx of this investment – especially from more distant countries and territories – has risen significantly in the last year. This is clearly reflected in the current rapid growth of our economy and falling unemployment. In the first half of 2015, the Czech Republic was one of the fastest growing economies in the EU.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and our diplomatic missions play an irreplaceable role in economic diplomacy as a first point of contact abroad. I also appreciate the deepening coordination between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other ministries, resulting in the opening of the Business Client Centre and the appointment of the first agriculture and science attachés.

A growing role in the world economy is being played by Asia. This should be echoed in our foreign policy and economic diplomacy. We have successfully restored bilateral relations with China and we are participating actively in the 16+1 format. At the same time, we have established a strategic partnership with the Republic of Korea, which could become a springboard for further activities in Southeast and East Asia. As part of our V4 presidency, we are preparing a prime ministerial summit in the “V4 plus Korea” format. We are actively involved in the 16+1 format for cooperation with China. I call attention to the successful healthcare summit hosted by Prague this spring. I will also be heading to China on a prime ministerial visit this year.

Our diplomacy agenda also encompasses technological advances and their impact on forms of production, industry and trade, energy, and, ultimately, the labour market. We must be capable of technological innovation and modernisation in order to maintain and increase our competitiveness.

Accordingly, we need to form and deepen research and innovation partnerships. The United States, Germany, Israel, Korea and Japan are among prospective partners, although the circle of cooperation is much broader. In this sense, we should also work towards better cooperation with leading research institutions abroad.

The work of our science attachés should contribute to this. I am pleased that we have recently agreed on the appointment of our first science attaché in Israel. We are keen to extend this form of diplomacy to other countries, such as the US and Germany, in the near future.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am well aware of the fact that a prerequisite for an effective foreign policy – besides high-calibre and enthusiastic diplomats – is a smoothly functioning Ministry of Foreign Affairs and network of missions. Having stabilised that network, in the future we are keen to avoid the blanket closures we have witnessed in the past. Having said that, we do need to continuously assess the benefits and effectiveness of maintaining the presence of diplomatic missions in various countries.

An integral part of diplomacy is our service to citizens, which is closely bound up with the functionality of the Ministry and diplomatic network. In the new Foreign Policy Concept, we have singled this out as one of our main national foreign policy objectives.

In the past year, we have also come across increasing numbers of convoluted cases involving Czech citizens in distress, whether they be in Nepal, Ukraine, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, Norway or, more recently, Lebanon. Consular work is a demanding and absolutely crucial activity of our missions. I would to voice my appreciation that it has been and continues to be performed to high standards, and I urge continuous improvement in this area.

This year has also been groundbreaking in that the Civil Service Act took full effect. I am convinced that this legislation is conducive to the development of a professional foreign service. I also realise, however, that putting the law into practice at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a challenge fraught with problems. The foreign service is highly specific in many respects, and this must be borne in mind when applying the law. I can assure you that the Government will be working on this.

In this context, I would like to thank Minister Lubomír Zaorálek and Secretary of State Petr Gajdušek for the work they have done for the Ministry so far. They have managed to remedy numerous such issues, though there is still much to be done.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank you for the work you have done in the service of the Czech Republic in the past year.

I wish you luck and strength in meeting further challenges awaiting our foreign policy in this difficult time.

Thank you very much.

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