Czech PM creates second ‘ideological’ foreign ministry

Czech political leadership creates curious precedence: two state secretaries for EU affairs, one named by the PM and one by the FM

Politics & Policy|Foreign Affairs
István Léko | 27.09.2011
From left to right: Prime Minister Petr Nečas; his state secreatry for EU affairs, Vojtěch Belling; first deputy foreign minister and state secretary for EU affairs, Jiří Schneider; and foregn minister Karel Schwarzenberg

To have two secretaries of state for EU affairs is nonsensical; the Czech Republic is the only country in the world to have such an arrangement. But for one of them to be a young man who has never been elected to an office, served as a diplomt, and with no experience of EU structures or circles in Brussels, is truly unique.

What are his qualifications? His anti-EU conservative ideology and secretive close connections with Prime Minister Petr Nečas (Civic Democrats, ODS) and the Civic Institute. Finally, our EU partners are sure to take us seriously now. So what’s behind this unique arrangement? It’s about control of the EU agenda, which forms the backbone of Czech foreign policy and from where billions of crowns flow into the country.  These are two absolutely juxtaposed approaches towards the EU, yet there is a pretence that they both belong within the coalition government. They don’t.

So who will gain the upper hand? The Government office, i.e. Nečas and the ODS, with their policy of attacking the EU at any opportunity and who frequently ignore the fact that this state is part of the EU? Or will it be Minister of Foreign Affairs Karel Schwarzenberg (the TOP 09 party chairman), who takes a realistic and courteous approach towards the EU and who has a team of professionals?

These are two absolutely juxtaposed approaches towards the EU, yet there is a pretence that they both belong within the coalition government. They don’t. What we’re seeing is an attempt to build some sort of second foreign affairs ministry that will conduct a secretive policy, formed without involvement of experts and with no accountability to parliament or the public.

Nečas’ envoy to Brussels

The Czech prime minister has appointed a young man lacking adequate qualifications as his secretary for EU affairs. He has given him the key to the European club comprised of seasoned politicians (with mandates from electorates), and no less-seasoned diplomats, people considerably older than him with much experience he lacks. Vojtěch Belling, 30, will doubtlessly raise eyebrows in Brussels. 

On the other hand, Belling does have some excellent qualifications: This academic theoretician declares himself to be a pure conservative who takes no prisoners when it comes to the EU; he’s an extension of President Václav Klaus’ presidential team although he was not directly installed by Prague Castle.

Divided they fall? Klaus and Nečas (both ODS men) with Schwarzenberg (TOP 09) and Radek John (VV) at Prague Castle

The aim of Klaus and his euroskeptic allies is to remove EU issues from the hands of those in the foreign ministry who know the EU well and who played roles in the arduous process of gaining EU membership for the Czech Republic, and transfer responsibility to ideologists who confuse Brussels with the Warsaw Pact. These people are from the highly conservative Civic Institute, headed by Roman Joch, and the no less conservative CEVRO - Liberal Conservative Academy headed by ex-Interior Minister Ivan Langer and MEP Jan Zahradil (both ODS).   

Belling began his political career as a passionate liberal with the center Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), becoming a secretary to former foreign minister Cyril Svoboda (KDU-ČSL). After the demise of the party, Belling turned up in the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs when headed by Nečas, and after being schooled in conservatism at the Civic Institute was appointed to head the ministry’s department for children and families. Belling then went further with Nečas. The appointment of Ladislav Bátora, ultra-conservative protégé of Klaus to the Education Ministry, Roman Joch becoming advisor to the prime minister are other pieces of the puzzle that have fallen into place for the general picture to emerge.            

Vondra and other anomalies  

According to traditional wisdom and also the law, foreign policy is, of course, the responsibility of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. An unfortunate precedent was set under the government of Mirek Topolánek with the creation of the post of Deputy Prime Minister for EU AffairsNevertheless, an unfortunate precedent was set under the government of Mirek Topolánek (ODS) with the creation of the post of Deputy Prime Minister for EU Affairs (note the term minister, not state secretary) which was filled by Alexandr Vondra (ODS).

The post was only supposed to last for the duration of the Czech presidency of the EU in the first six months of 2009. Unlike in most EU states, the EU minister was subordinate to the prime minister and not to the foreign minister, and this is where the current conflict arose.

Vondra built a strong apparatus for himself in the Government Office, which has remained with 55 employees, while all ministries have reduced staff numbers in line with government spending cuts. This apparatus has been searching for a raison d’être even without a minister, and the government has got used to intervening in EU politics directly.

Alexandr Vondra (ODS) built up a strong apparatus for himself in the Government Office

When the current coalition government was being formed, it was decided to abolish the post of minister for EU affairs and the decision was included in the coalition agreement and the coalition government’s founding declaration. The same agreement states that the prime minister is responsible for the strategy of the country’s general strategy towards the EU for which he has the necessary apparatus, but nowhere is it stated that the Government Office’s department for EU affairs takes precedence over the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Another anomaly: There are no time limits set for state secretaries, neither in the relevant laws, nor in the coalition agreement, nor in the government’s stated policy program. A long while back now, state official Pavel Telička, who played a role in negotiating Czech entry to the EU, saw to it that such time limits were not imposed so as he would have a stronger position during entry negotiations (and also greater personal aura). 

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