Press Advisories

28. 1. 2009 11:20

European Policies and "2G" - commentary M. Topolánek, PM and President of the European Council

Immediately, in the first weeks after it assumed its function, the Czech Presidency had to face a “2G load”, i.e. to face the Gaza and Gas situations.

Missile attacks against Israel and military counter-attacks and the interruption of the supply of Russian gas piped through Ukraine required immediate action and the Czech Presidency, in both instances along with the European Commission and with the support of the European Union Member States, initiated a negotiating mission for both the Middle East and between Kiev and Moscow. The rapid response of the Czech government was facilitated to a large degree by its geographical location as well as its historical experience, but primarily by the priorities of the Presidency – the focus on energy security which we had identified as a number-one topic long before January 1, despite the fact that our concern that Europe is vulnerable due to its dependence on these energy supplies was branded as unjustified by some and called at least exaggerated. Similarly, within the plan to define a new framework of relations with Israel, we called attention to the fact that the European Union must play a larger role in the Middle East process, and not remain just a “big payer but not a big player.”

With a touch of a cynical hyperbole it could be said that in order to legitimise and underscore the significance of its priorities, the Czech Presidency could not have asked for more than the two “Gaza and Gas” crises. If some people doubted the meaningfulness of these priorities a month ago, then now these same people would need to consider them as key priorities for the entire European Union. It is obvious today, that we did not criticise the major dependence on one single source of energy supplies only through the prism of our national experience, and we did not call for a more active approach to the events in the Middle East only in view of the historical relations between the Czech Republic and Israel. Due to our heightened sensitivity we called for attention to risks which – unfortunately – in both cases became bitterly true. And even though the two disputes have consequences of a different nature, and I would not want to compare a conflict where innocent people die with an economic conflict where innocent people “merely” become hostages of sorts, there does indeed emerge a common dimension: both conflicts escalated outside of the European Union but both have fundamental effects on the EU.

In the first place it became obvious that the EU is not able to use other direct instruments to resolve such crises than intensive negotiations and continuous appeals to maintain adherence to international law and agreement. With regard to the fact that both crises were caused by an evident and wilful breach of these at their very beginning, at a later and more critical time these appeals had to pierce walls of arguments which the parties to both conflicts put up as defence of their actions. At the time of writing, Hamas is observing the ceasefire and the Israeli army is withdrawing units from the Gaza Strip, Russia is once again supplying gas to the Ukrainian transit network. The EU may consider the current circumstances a success. I should however like to look back – to before the gas supplies were severed, before Israel commenced its military operations. Was everything back then all in good order?

The Hamas attacks on Israel were not a surprise: last year the terrorists launched more than 1800 missiles at Israel and several times they even used new missiles with a range exceeding 40 kilometres, which put almost a million people in danger. Israel repeatedly warned the world that it would not tolerate such a situation. Similarly, the Russo-Ukrainian disputes about gas prices and transit fees threatened gas supplies to the EU in 2006 and the continuing differences of opinion between Kiev and Moscow on prices also surfaced in the autumn of 2007.

Again this was no surprise. And because I agree with the opinion that it is more effective to solve problems at their onset than to try to dispose of their consequences, I must ask what the EU Member States could have done, while respecting the sovereignty of these third countries. The answer is the same as at the beginning of this speech: to conduct intensive negotiations and to call for adherence to international law and agreements. This role therefore does not end with the current calm in Gaza, nor by the restored gas supplies. Let’s take this “2G” experience as a lesson that unless we improve our sensitivity to spot the first warning signals in areas and spheres which are important to the EU, the situation may deteriorate rapidly without warning.

This applies to instances which are less graphic than the burning homes in Israel and Gaza, or the freezing households and silent production lines in those European countries that are dependent on Russian gas. When we speak of breaches of international agreements, we could also mention human rights in Cuba, treaties on the non-proliferation of nuclear arms in Iran, intellectual property rights in China ... If the EU continues its appeasement policy, arguing that these are only “insignificant” or “temporary” breaches, it will weaken its international influence even more. My experience with “2G” also includes that which has come about now, paradoxically in a time of calm, a sort of inner uneasiness.

The danger lurks in the possible self-satisfaction in the EU that things are “back to normal”. The air is ripe with questions: Would Israel stop the military operations if it did not consider its objectives fulfilled? Would Russia reinstate supplies if progress in Ukraine did not meet its expectations? This is only known in Jerusalem and Moscow. I, despite having been there and having held talks with Ehud Olmert and the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, would not want to answer these questions. They are not for us to answer. We should be interested however in what position we should take up ourselves.

When the Czech Presidency presented its programme, it declared that within the context of the priority entitled “Europe and the World” it intends to strengthen the ties, between the EU and Israel and, in connection with the dimension of the “Eastern Partnership,” also with Ukraine. The Gaza and gas conflicts have divided the support of some of the Member States for these policies. Understandably; how difficult it must be to explain the three-week long operation of the Israeli army in countries which have a strong Palestinian community, or to explain the uncertainty with regard to the difficulties in gas supplies on Ukrainian territory in those countries where the citizens reached the brink of an energy-related disaster? But if the EU is to play an important role on the global stage it must not only be able to react to the actual needs and progress of the situation, but also to insist on its long-term positions. With regard to the cases at hand this means a new agreement on the Euro-Israeli Partnership, as the current one expires in April, and the support of Ukraine in its efforts to integrate into Euro-Atlantic structures, because only such orientation and preparation may help to restore European confidence.

Let’s not appear as if we had been taken by surprise and let’s not relativise in immediate reactions what we said a long time ago. Should the events of the last couple of weeks, however dramatic they may have been, be able to change our positions on matters of principal importance, this would mean that we were not prepared for them and that our knowledge of the international and political terrain was only superficial. Let’s be stricter with ourselves and let’s not fear our political opponents. And at the same time, let’s make it clear, sooner and louder, that it is primarily our partners who must observe the values which tie us to them. And that this is what they will receive our support for. I am conservative: what is worthwhile, is what will endure.

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