“CEE states have not needed security policies because their environment has not required it… the EU seemed poised to offer a ‘reinsurance’ policy of economic security and someday, so it was thought, possibly military security as well. This environment allowed CEE states, including the Czech Republic, to safely and consistently under-invest in their own security. That period has ended. CEE states now face a fundamentally altered strategic environment that will never again – or at least, not for a very long time – be as benign as it was for most of the post-Cold War milieu.”
It was in 1335 when the King of Bohemia John of Luxembourg, King of Hungary Charles I Anjou and King of Poland Casimir III met in the Hungarian King‘s Residence in Visegrad to achieve a peace agreement between the Bohemian and Polish Kings on the dispute over the lands under Hungarian arbitration. The peace achieved among these strong kings in Central Europe opened the door to prosperity of the region to the benefit of its population. Six hundred and fifty six years later, the descendants of Czechs, Hungarians, Poles and Slovaks revived the history and established a new platform of friendship and cooperation, building upon and further developing the foundation of Visegrad cooperation.
The Visegrad Group (also known as the ‘Visegrad Four‘ or simply ‘V4‘) founded in 1991, reflects the efforts of the countries of the Central European region to work together in a number of fields of common interest within the all-European integration. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have always been part of a single civilization sharing cultural and intellectual values and common roots in diverse religious traditions, which they wish to preserve and further strengthen.
In 2016, the V4 will celebrate its 25th Anniversary, marking the peaceful political transition to democracy, whilst reaffirming their commitment to security and stability in the region and Europe as a whole. We asked the Ambassador of the Czech Republic, whose country currently holds the rotating V4 Presidency (July 1st 2015 until June 30th 2016), to tell us more about this group that is proving a role model for regional cooperation.
“In 2016, the Visegrad Group (V4) will celebrate the 25th Anniversary of its Founding. The world, and in particular the political map of Europe, looked quite different then and now. Nevertheless, they had one thing in common: the need to strengthen mutual trust and solidarity.”
GDL: The quick and smooth accession of the Czech Republic to the EU and NATO have shaped the foreign and security policy of your country. Can you tell us more about the priorities that you have for the future?
JB: The Czech Republic’s security is based on the principle of safeguarding the security of the individual and protecting his life, health and property. The successful practice of this principle relies on the safeguarding of the security of state institutions, including their full operational capability, and the development of processes and tools intended to strengthen the security and protection of the population.
While it is primarily the Government’s duty to safeguard security, the active cooperation of Czech citizens, businesses and entrepreneurs and public authorities is desirable in efforts to mitigate threat risks. This strengthens society’s overall resilience to security threats.
The political and economic stability of the European Union is of key significance in safeguarding the Czech Republic’s security. The exceptional openness of the Czech economy exposes it to external influences, particularly with respect to market access and energy supplies. In view of the values and principles which it espouses, the Czech Republic favours joint action within international organisations and groupings of states that advocate peaceful conflict resolution, a collective approach to security and mutually beneficial economic cooperation.
The Czech Republic’s security policy is based on the principle of the indivisibility of security. The Czech Republic’s security is inseparable from security in the Euro-Atlantic area and from the global security situation. The nature of the security environment is such that the defence and protection of the state’s citizens and territory does not end at the borders of the Czech Republic. Security interests often need to be defended far beyond the borders of allied states. The Czech Republic’s security policy is governed not only by its own specific interests, but also by solidarity with its allies in NATO and the EU.
The Czech Republic prefers the active avoidance of armed conflicts and preventive diplomacy.
If a crisis or armed conflict arises, it strives to reach a solution by political and diplomatic means.
If these fail, the Czech Republic may – in accordance with its constitutional order, laws and the principles of the UN Charter, and within the framework of its commitments to and solidarity with – use force to protect its vital and, if necessary, its strategic interests.
The basic principles for safeguarding the defence and security of the Czech Republic are active involvement in the NATO system of collective defence based on a strong transatlantic link,the development of EU crisis management capabilities and cooperation with partner countries, Greece is a very important partner.
“Our ambition is to make progress in defence capability development. The priority will be given to the most promising areas: Training and Exercises, Joint Logistic Support Group, CBRN, Joint Terminal Air Controllers, Special Operations Forces… We welcome that the issue of Joint Airspace Protection was brought to the table.”
GDL: Under your country’s Visegrad Group Chairmanship, what are the priority commitments in order to strength their cooperation?
JB: In 2016, the Visegrad Group (V4) will celebrate the 25th Anniversary of its Founding. The world, and in particular the political map of Europe, looked quite different then and now. Nevertheless, they had one thing in common: the need to strengthen mutual trust and solidarity. The fact that the Visegrad Group has chosen these two goals as a basis of its cooperation proves the timelessness of its focus. By means of the selected slogan, the Czech Presidency has decided to highlight this fact, as well as the V4’s commitment to continue these efforts.
THEMATIC PRIORITIES OF THE CZECH PRESIDENCY 2015–2016
Cooperation in all the areas listed in this programme naturally contributes to the internal cohesion of the Visegrad region. The Czech Republic will continue to reinforce the stability and togetherness of Central Europe, primarily through targeted cooperation among its citizens, NGOs, businesses and other players in the Visegrad countries. Aside from coordinating on EU matters and on specific sector cooperation projects (see below), an important task of ours is to develop “infrastructure among people” (in a broad sense) and thus further contribute to mutual understanding, as well as to an open, unbiased debate on common interests and to a reflection on relations within the broader Central European region.
Energy has long been an important cross-sectional topic for Visegrad. In light of the current foreign affairs events, such as the Ukrainian crisis or instability in the Middle East, its relevance has grown even further.
The activities of the Czech Presidency will build on the work done by the SK V4 PRES. The Czech Presidency will try to continue in prospective projects or create new ones that can be further developed during the Polish Presidency in the second half of 2016. The CZ V4 PRES will continue the cooperation within the framework of two already existing Working Groups – the V4 Working Group on Energy and the V4 Forum for Gas Market Integration.
- European Neighbourhood Policy, Enlargement Policy, Transition Support and Development Aid
The most important area of the Visegrad Group foreign policy activities has been focused on the countries of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. Under the Czech Presidency, the V4 will pursue activities to support the European orientation and, with respect to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, the European perspective of the Eastern Partnership countries in accordance with the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), the revision of which the V4 countries will actively take part in.
- Security and Defence Cooperation
The Czech Republic will be taking over the Presidency at a time when the world is undergoing fundamental changes of its security environment with direct consequences for both the Euro-Atlantic, as well as global security and stability, with an armed conflict taking place in Ukraine, in the immediate vicinity of the V4. The Czech V4 Presidency will actively reflect this development in its activities, supporting measures that address this change and strengthening the common defence capabilities of the Visegrad countries and the organisations of which the Visegrad countries are members.
- Active Practising of the Solidarity Principle in the EU
The Czech Republic will continue the current practice of close cooperation and coordination of positions of the V4 countries both before important EU meetings, as well as during regular meetings at the political and expert levels. The EU topics represent a firm component of cooperation among the V4 Prime Ministers who will continue with the established schedule of coordination meetings.
The main areas of coordination talks are comprised of economic policy (incl. the social dimension, internal market and digital agenda), transport, energy, climate protection, asylum and migration. The Czech Republic will also react to an ad hoc development and discussions at the European level by addressing other topics as necessary. Picking up where the SK PRES left off, the Czech Republic plans to initiate activities leading to an acquisition of a greater public support for the idea of European integration.
- Digital Agenda and Development of Infrastructure
A digital agenda includes much more than just infrastructure development. However, both topics are closely related and both are associated to cooperation in the EU, as well as to the V4 internal cohesion. The Digital Agenda for Europe is one of the priorities of the EU’s broader Europe 2020 political strategy, as well as one of the key EU policies. In this area, the CZ V4 PRES will follow-up on the activities already launched during the SK V4 PRES and continue with the work of “V4 Innovation Task Force”.
- Combating Tax Fraud and Evasion
A cross-border tax fraud and evasion currently represents a serious problem for all the V4 countries, as well as at an EU level. Increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of tax collection is one of the key topics of both the EU and regional cooperation and for this reason this CZ V4 PRES priority is closely tied to coordination within the EU, as well as to cross-border cooperation within the Visegrad Group and the broader Central European region.
“Besides the cultural events organised by the Embassy, we arrange contacts between Czech and Greek subjects and artists who wish to cooperate in the field of culture… We should not forget either the close historical cultural contacts that connect Greece and the Czech Republic.”
GDL: What are the most pressing challenges to the current geopolitical situation in your area?
JB: For the past 25 years, the small states of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) have not needed militaries. Not really. For that matter, they have not needed security policies much at all – at least, not in the way that small states throughout history have needed them, as tools to guard the state against coercion, invasion or extinction at the hands of stronger actors. That is not to say that they have not had such policies, just that they were not essential to the survival of the state. CEE states needed active security policies to gain entry into, first, NATO and then the European Union (EU). Afterward, many of them found their small but largely ineffectual militaries useful for helping the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. But for the most part, their relationship with “hard power” has come to look more and more like the EU mainstream.
CEE states have not needed security policies because their environment has not required it. For most of the post-Cold War period, Russia was militarily weak, the United States provided basic security against whatever threat might emerge, and the EU seemed poised to offer a “reinsurance” policy of economic security and someday, so it was thought, possibly military security as well. This environment allowed CEE states, including the Czech Republic, to safely and consistently under-invest in their own security. That period has ended. CEE states now face a fundamentally altered strategic environment that will never again – or at least, not for a very long time – be as benign as it was for most of the post-Cold War milieu.
These days, CEE states will have to rethink their relationship with hard power. For the first time in decades, they will actually need security policies at the national level – policies that embrace traditional concepts of force and strategy that run counter to these states’ self-images as post-modern EU member states. For the Ukraine crisis is a reminder that the EU system is dependent for its continuation on benign surroundings that were made possible by hard power.
GDL: What is the Czech approach to the Common Security and Defence Policy of Europe?
JB: The Visegrad countries know better than most that security, whether military, economic, human or otherwise, can never be taken for granted.
We recognise the progress achieved in defence cooperation over the last year considering the successful completion of all the tasks given in our declarations from October 2013 and June 2014. We paid special attention to the preparation of the key document to guide the joint V4 defence efforts in the coming years – the Action Plan of the Visegrad Group Defence Cooperation which was adopted by the V4 Defence Ministers on April 23rd 2015 in Tomášov.
We welcome the fact that the process of building the V4 EU Battlegroup is nearly completed. We are convinced that the certification exercise Common Challenge 2015 will prove the readiness and preparedness of the V4 EU Battlegroup for the standby phase in 2016.
We expect the V4 Defence Ministers to use lessons learned from the preparation of the V4 EU Battlegroup to further work on the establishment of a permanent V4 Modular Force which could be used as our joint regional contribution to NATO and EU capacities. In this regard, interoperability of the V4 countries’ Armed Forces needs to be further increased and tested through regular joint V4 exercises. In this respect, we welcome the V4 Training and Exercise Strategy which was endorsed by the V4 Defence Ministers in Tomášov.
Our ambition is to make progress in defence capability development. The priority will be given to the most promising areas: Training and Exercises, Joint Logistic Support Group, CBRN, Joint Terminal Air Controllers, Special Operations Forces. In addition, we will continue to promote cooperation among defence industries. In this regard, we encourage our Defence Ministers to further develop cooperation in these areas with the aim of bringing more tangible results. We welcome that the issue of Joint Airspace Protection was brought to the table. To support the concept of the joint V4 Airspace Protection, we hereby encourage our Defence Ministries to sign the necessary bilateral Cross-Border Agreements between the respective V4 countries to cover the whole V4 airspace as soon as possible. These agreements may serve as a first step towards developing a regional approach. Progress in this area shall be presented at the Warsaw Summit 2016.
One of our main goals is to actively contribute to complementarity of the EU and NATO initiatives and support the harmonisation of their actions within the changing security environment. We expect the Defence Ministers to use the V4 format, when and where appropriate, to implement the decisions of the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales, to consult and harmonise our countries’ priorities for the July 2016 Warsaw Summit, as well as further coordinate our positions regarding the European Council, also focusing on security and defence issues and during the drafting procedure of the prospective new European Security Strategy.
GDL: Diversification is one of the key factors ensuring energy security in Europe as a whole. What plans are in the pipeline for your region, i.e., central Europe?
JB: The Czech Government strongly supports the project of Energy Union approved by the EU Summit in March, which will provide for a completion of the energy internal market. It aims at ensuring safe and cheap energy for citizens and businesses and enhances energy diversification of the energy resources. There are various projects (e.g. Gazelle, Stork II, BACI, Oberkappel) inscribed into the EU list of projects of common interest focusing on East-West and Nord-South interconnection of the national gas systems in the region of Central Europe that could be used in times of gas supply disruption. Reverse flow at the main transmission infrastructure from West to East has been achieved and the capacity of gas storages has been increased. Also, the TANAP and TAP projects when completed will contribute to the diversification of gas supplies and increase the security of gas supply particularly in Southeast Europe. These pipelines and the proposed pipeline Eastring could be used in future to transport gas to Europe from the Caspian, Middle East or East Mediterranean newly opened fields.
GDL: The economic crisis that Greece is facing over the last five years had an impact on the pace of bilateral and trade relations with your country. What are the favourable sectors that we should be based upon to re-start the excellent level of cooperation that we had before?
JB: The economic crisis, which also hit the Czech Republic, had a negative impact on the trade exchange between our two countries. Interestingly enough, there were opposite tendencies in the development of trade flows. While Greek exports into the Czech Republic have been constantly growing, reaching 21% increase since 2008, Czech exports to Greece experienced a drop by 40% in the same period of time. This fact is explained by the composition of traded commodities. The Czech economy is largely based on manufacturing industries and products like automobile vehicles, telecommunication and electrical equipment, with chemical products forming the core of Czech exports. Greek export commodities are more diversified and, therefore, less vulnerable to market fluctuations. So, we are confident that with the re-start of the economic growth in Greece the figures will return to the pre-crisis level and pace.
GDL: Your Excellency, although you are very new to our country, what is your impression of Greece so far, and as an art lover in all its forms, was this country a sought after destination for you and your family?
JB: Greece is definitely what it is often referred to ‘the cradle of European civilization’. The Greek culture, mostly the Ancient one, but not only, has throughout the ages enormously influenced cultures of other European countries, including the Czech Republic. In this respect, I am very glad that I have been posted here and, over the next few years, will have the opportunity to explore in detail the Ancient, as well as Modern, Greek culture in the very place that they were both born.
We – the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Athens – reciprocally aim at presenting various forms of the rich Czech culture in Greece. To be specific, in a past few years we have presented to our Greek audience Czech music (classical, folklore, jazz), various genres of visual and graphic art and Czech literature. Besides the cultural events organised by the Embassy, we arrange contacts between Czech and Greek subjects and artists who wish to cooperate in the field of culture and we also support the participation of artists from the Czech Republic in international multicultural events that take place in Greece (jazz festivals in Athens and other Greek cities, celebration of European day of languages, the Print Fest – graphic biennale, etc). Our aim, of course, is to present the Czech culture, not only in the capital, but also in other parts of Greece – so far we have organised art exhibitions and concerts in Thessaloniki, Crete, Livadia, Volos, Nafpaktos and other places.
We should not forget either the close historical cultural contacts that connect Greece and the Czech Republic. Few people in both countries for instance know about the strong friendship and fruitful cooperation between the famous Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis and the distinguished Czech music composer Bohuslav Martinů – the world-wide reknown opera by Martinů ‘The Greek Passion’ is based on Kazantzakis’ book ‘Christ recrucified’. They do not know either that Nikos Kazantzakis was living – twice(!) – for a couple of years in the Czech village ‘Boží dar’ (‘God´s present’ in English) where he wrote an important part of his, perhaps greatest work, the epic 33,333 verse long poem ‘The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel’. There are, of course, many more similar cases of cooperation that we could find.
Culture really does connect nations, besides the Czech culture, we have been trying to promote this cultural connection between our people. Therefore, as I said at the beginning, I am glad that I have been posted here, and apart from the opportunity to learn more about your country and culture, I also have the opportunity to promote my country and culture and our mutual relations here.
Interview by Nicolas Boutsicos
Editor, Greek Diplomatic Life
Published in July/August 2015