On 30 June 2020, Czechia finished its rotating presidency of Visegrad Group, which on 1 July 2020 had passed to Poland based on the yearly rotating principle. Continuing on a similar note as the preceding Slovak term, the Czech presidency can be characterised as a reasonable and pragmatic way forward in the Visegrad cooperation. The Czech diplomacy used the Visegrad platform for advancing its goals and priorities, including in the realm of foreign policy, or when applying the traditionally prominent V4+ formats of cooperation with third parties. Among the successes, the Czech and Visegrad contribution to the future of Eastern Partnership, as well as shaping the EU’s policy towards Western Balkan countries should be highlighted as the most significant ones. Despite this positive agenda, the Visegrad cooperation remained a contested subject in the Czech domestic politics and society, especially when assessed against the activity of the V4 prime ministers.
The V4 cooperation proved to produce good results and advance the Czech goals and priories when implementing the programme of the Czech presidency under the “V4Reasonable Europe” motto. During 2019/20, the Czech foreign ministry chose the EU’s eastern policy as the main topic for the so-called reflection group that met in Prague and Warsaw and produced a final paper. The paper subsequently contributed to a joint statement on the V4 priorities of the Eastern Partnership’s future beyond 2020, which were also discussed with the German diplomacy and the V4 civil society. On other accounts, the Czech V4 presidency produced meaningful initiatives including the relations with the Western Balkan countries and the coordination of the Visegrad positions on the matters such as the future of the EU’s MFF, the Single Market, the digitalisation and common defence, among other issues.
Relations with other regional platforms. The Czechs were also successfully building bridges with other regional platforms, such as the Benelux trio or the Baltic and Scandinavian countries to overcome barriers and promote dialogue on the priorities for the EU integration, especially in the context of Brexit and the power shift in the EU. Therefore, as previously, the V4+ formats remained high on the Czech Visegrad agenda, most notably with Germany, but also Austria and other EU and non-EU countries, including from the EU’s neighbourhood. This was particularly significant for the relations with Germany, which took over the EU presidency from Croatia on 1 July 2020, and allowed the Czech and Visegrad positions on particular policy issues to Europeanise and upload them to the EU level.
Czech and V4: Contribution to the Future of the Eastern Partnership (EaP). During 2019/20, the Czech diplomacy continued to be among the active and reputable players on the Eastern Partnership front. After two high-level conferences hosted by ministries of foreign affairs and industry & trade in 2019, Czechia came up with its influential non-paper showcasing resilience as the future framework of the EaP, which was circulated among the EU member states and finally endorsed by more than ten of them, including from the Visegrad Group. Following a public consultation in the summer and autumn 2019, to which Czechia and the V4 countries had also contributed, the European Commission, after successful lobbying in Brussels, adopted this approach as a new meta-narrative for EaP’s future beyond 2020. This proved to be a success of Czech diplomacy, even if the citizens of the Czech Republic were not completely satisfied with the outcome of the strategic reflection. The main problem turned out to be the lack of political narrative and vision for the future development of the partnership, as well as the unconvincing approach of the European Commission to the fundamental values and basic principles of the cooperation. At the level of EU members, Czechia as well as Visegrad stood among the more ambitious countries on the future development of mutual relations and pushed for the recognition of the European aspirations of the associated countries.
The Czech Presidency and the EU’s eastern policy. The Czech V4 Presidency also had the EU’s eastern policy at its core. This was the case concerning state officials and their coordination meetings as well as the high-level consultations among foreign ministries. One the hand, the former dedicated a substantial part of the Czech presidency’s attention to the coordination of the V4 positions and cooperation with Germany as well as consultations with the V4 civil society. On the other hand, the latter presented a Visegrad Joint Statement on the future of EaP beyond 2020 in April 2020 as a concrete and meaningful contribution to the EU debate on the future of the eastern policy. At the same time, the V4 ministers announced the establishment of a new programme “V4EastSolidarity” to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences in Eastern Europe, as part of the International Visegrad Fund. The new initiative was praised by the European stakeholders as a concrete activity to support the Eastern European countries and stabilise the EU’s eastern neighbourhood. Initially, the planned ministerial conference of the V4 with their EaP counterparts was scheduled to accompany the April meeting and was only cancelled due to the coronavirus emergency; it is now rescheduled under the Polish presidency.
The long-term strategy. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the EaP high-level summit planned for June 2019 also had to be rescheduled for March 2021, despite the opposition from Czechia, the Visegrad countries and other EU member states. While, at least, the Eastern Partnership leaders’ meeting took place in mid-June 2020, there is still an urgent need to adopt the future agenda for the policy since the 20 Deliverables for 2020 are about to expire by the end of this year. This might provide additional opportunities for Czechia and the Polish V4 Presidency to shape the agenda and push for their priorities and opinions on the content of the future EU’s eastern policy. Even if the new long-term priorities until 2030 remain unclear now, they will certainly reflect the new EU’s focus areas of digital and green agendas as well as resilience as a new framework for the future political and economic relations. What is important from the Czech and V4 perspectives is that the newly formed basis for cooperation provides an opportunity to move relations with Eastern partners to a higher level, also due the sectoral integration advocated by Czechia. Concurrently, the Czech and V4 diplomatic efforts should be aimed at making the best out of the EU negotiations on the MFF, which only provided a limited budget for the external NDICI (Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument).The Czechs should also place a strong emphasis on the basic values of the EaP and deepening of the Euro-Atlantic orientation, especially with the associated countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. On the other hand, the Trio Strategy does not have the Czech support since it splits the original format and prevents full inclusivity.
The main challenge for Czech and Visegrad diplomacy will not only motivate partner countries to implement complex reforms and deal with security-related issues but also fulfil the mutual relations with sufficiently ambitious content; especially if Czechia is to host the next EaP summit during its EU presidency in the second half of 2022 in Prague. The Czech government should not only keep this option on the table despite the recent changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic but also to turn this opportunity into a foreign policy success and bring another Czech footprint with new elements to its long-term priority. However, this will require a certain amount of imagination, but also political capital and diplomatic skills to work on this topic over a longer period and successfully negotiate with partners on realistic proposals for the future development of the EaP. The Czech government should waste no time and start working on these proposals as soon as possible. The V4 format of cooperation and the Polish V4 Presidency will undoubtedly be a good ally and platform for such negotiations and coordination with other European partners.
Conclusions. The 2019/20 Czech V4 presidency proved to play a productive and reasonable role in promoting the Czech and Visegrad cooperation and their goals and priorities in Europe. This was best evident in the domain of foreign relations and the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy that went through a process of strategic reflection, in which the united voice of the Czech and V4 brought a change. Thanks to efficient coordination and smooth Visegrad cooperation, it was possible not only to keep the EaP policy high on the EU’s agenda but to shape it towards higher ambitions, concrete and meaningful goals in relation to the Eastern Partnership states.
The role of the Czech coordination and the Visegrad cooperation proved fruitful in influencing the policy as well as showing a concrete and constructive involvement of the V4 within the European policymaking. For the V4’s critics, especially in Czechia, this involvement might have served as an example of the Visegrad cooperation as a useful tool to advance the Czech national interests, including the EU and the neighbourhood. Yet, there is still a need to complement this orientation and involve third parties through the V4+ formats of cooperation, including, most importantly, Germany that might further help to Europeanise the Visegrad debates and policies as well as its future development and rights and values orientation. Therefore, from a Czech point of view, a continuity between the Czech and Polish V4 presidencies is highly desirable.
The content of this IEŚ Commentaries reflects only the views of its author and should not be associated with the official position of the Institute of Central Europe in Lublin.
*Pavel Havlíček is a Research Fellow of the Association for International Affairs (AMO)’s Research Centre. His research focus is on Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine and Russia and the Eastern Partnership. He also deals with questions of strategic communication and disinformation as well as democratisation and civil society. Pavel Havlíček has cooperated with AMO since May 2016.
 Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, V4 Reasonable Europe. Programme for the Czech Presidency of the Visegrad Group 2019/2020, last modified on 6 September 2019, https://www.mzv.cz/file/3626458/Programme_CZ_V4_PRES_2019_2020_A.pdf [11.08.2020].
 Visegrad Group, The Visegrad Group Joint Statement on the Future of the Eastern Partnership, last modified on April 8, 2020, http://www.visegradgroup.eu/documents/official-statements/the-visegrad-group-joint-200409 [11.08.2020].
 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, V4 Foreign Ministers Discussed the Future of the Eastern Partnership, last modified on April 8, 2020, https://www.mzv.cz/jnp/en/issues_and_press/press_releases/x2020_04_08_v4_foreign_ministers_discussed_the_eap.html [11.08.2020].