“Even though some people may wish so, there is no danger the European Union would fall apart.”
According to Tomáš Prouza, the Czech Republic is a reliable and predictable member of the European Union. How does it make his work as the main liaison between the Czech government and Brussels easier? How, in his opinion, has Europe united regarding the migration crisis and what did the Czech Republic achieve in the EU within the last year? In the interview for Czech & Slovak Leaders, the State Secretary for European Affairs also comments on the date of possible adoption of a single European currency by the Czech Republic.
Dear Mr Prouza, on your webpage you present yourself as a “European, economist, and a bit different official”. Why is that?
The word “official” often evokes rigidness, lengthy procedures, and stereotypes. Although I am an official formally, I do not identify with such negative view. Especially in European politics I have to be really dynamic, I must be able to react to quick changes occurring in Europe; I need to keep contact with “Brussels” all the time, with my colleagues in other EU member states as well as the Czech Republic leaders.
Which apparently is happening…
Important part of my work is increasing awareness of the European Union and its significance for our country among the Czechs. That was underestimated by previous governments and since January 2014 when I joined the Office of Government, it has been my task to change this situation radically. Which you can´t do if people consider you a non-action and boring person sitting behind his desk.
What exactly does your work involve on a daily basis?
First of all, my task is to give the government recommendations regarding our strategy in European affairs. It means what major issues we should focus on in our European policy, what and how we should promote, and which direction we want to proceed. I am also responsible for coordinating Czech positions towards European institutions, I have to regularly communicate with my colleagues from other member states, which also means personal meetings as well and so a lot of travelling. However, frequent contacts have been the basis for successful Czech European policy in the last two years; our partners show us much more respect if we explain our position in person.
Can you give us some examples, please?
Regular contact helps the Czech Republic create coalitions thanks to which other member states support our plans. I would like to add that besides this diplomatic role, an important part of my work is communication on European issues to the public and a regular dialogue with our Parliament and Czech members of the European Parliament.
You mentioned regular contact. Do you mind that work of the State Secretary for European Affairs is not much discussed in media?
When it comes to the media, it of course matters what issues are currently popular. If domestic politics is discussed, Europe is put aside, which I personally feel sorry about as it is an evidence of the fact that our journalistic community still lacks perception of the scale of influence that EU affairs have on a domestic scene. When I took the position of the State Secretary for European Affairs, two months later we celebrated 10 years in the EU, which meant a big interest of journalists in interviews, conferences, and various discussion meetings around the country. Back then, I could not say that the media do not pay enough attention to the European agenda and my work. In the summer of 2014, I spent a lot of media time on explaining sanctions against Russia. For the last six months, a topic number one has been migration and refugee crisis. The issue which I am dealing with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in my office. European issues get more and more publicity, which is important.
What is other member states´ perception of the Czech approach to the migration crisis?
Due to the fact that Brussels was focusing mainly on the so-called relocation system at the beginning of the migration crisis, our position was not understood by some member states. Now, all-European approach is progressing in the same direction that the Czechs have been advocating since the very beginning – solving migration crisis at its roots and control of external Schengen borders.
What, in your opinion, makes the European Union most united these days?
What really has united European states in the course of the last months is their common reaction to tragic events in Paris last November. All member states condemned this unprecedented display of hatred and violence. Parisian attacks were directed at traditional European values and wanted to make them weaker; however, it has paradoxically united the old continent and we all started working on securing safer Europe in the quickest and most efficient way.
What on the other hand makes Europe most divided?
The European Union consists of sovereign states and in a democratic society it is natural that priorities differ; there are different opinions and views. I don´t think there is a topic that would absolutely divide the Union; there are topics which we view differently from our partners, however this does not bring any fatal consequences to the European Union as a whole. Even though some people may wish so, there is no danger the European Union would fall apart.
Are we able as a member state to keep up with changes in Europe? Are we reliable?
In the past, the image of the Czech Republic was one of a troublemaker obstructing progress in major European issues. However, this changed two years ago and the Czechs are a reliable and predictable member of the European Union now. This I am repeatedly assured about by our partners abroad. We are able to react to changes quickly, which was visible during migration crisis last time, when we repeatedly manifested our solidarity by accepting refugees in need, by increasing material and expert aid. However, at the same time, we clearly voiced up what is important for us – and now our opinion is being adopted by the whole Europe.
Does the Czech Republic have a clear idea of who should represent the main face of its foreign policy, and I don´t mean constitutionally?
Not looking at that from the point of view of the constitution, this should be a person with adequate knowledge and respect. Czech foreign policy is determined by the government. Responsibility goes to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however in top meetings with foreign partners the main role is played by Prime Minister. And let me tell you that the cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is fantastic. Our great advantage is that we have an active Chairman of the Chamber of Deputies since the role of parliamentarian diplomacy has been becoming stronger and stronger.
What would you like to mention as the main success of Czech politics in Brussels last year?
I don´t think it was just one success. I consider an important achievement for example adoption of all operational programmes, which means the Czech Republic is able to draw approximately 644 billion Czech Crowns from the European budget in a new programming period of 2014-2020. Following the ineffective drawing of European funds in past years, the situation has finally changed.
As far as you keep saying, it may also be the issue of migration and its solution.
After an unconvincing start it became clear later that a really effective way is to solve causes, not results. European leaders agreed on the approach that the Czech Republic has been supporting since the very beginning – protection of external Schengen borders without which we can never succeed in dealing with migration crisis. Towards the end of the last year, the European Commission also started their work on a draft of a single European border guard, i.e. a system which the Czech Prime Minister has been repeatedly talking about in the course of the last months. It is obvious that Czech voice is being heard in Europe.
Has there been any failure?
I don´t see any major failure in Europe. We could definitely get much better in explaining European affairs at home since the stereotypes inside some people´s heads persist, especially thanks to the support from many populists and half-forgotten politicians whose last chance is a “scarecrow of Brussels”.
Ten years ago you were the first ever national coordinator for Euro adoption in the CR. So, let me ask a clear question – will we ever have Euro in the Czech Republic at all?
Of course we will, although the decision about the entry is unfortunately not going to come within this election term. Nevertheless, the government makes efforts to prepare everything so that the next cabinet can decide about Euro adoption quickly and does not have to work on technical aspects anymore. Adoption of Euro will bring significant economic advantages to the Czech Republic; therefore we should act as quickly as possible.
Is the Czech Republic now building on the grounds you had set up in your position? What has actually been the biggest development for the ten years?
Previously, most of our governments were not in favour of our country´s entry into the Euro zone, which reflected their position towards European integration issues in general. Only this government stated in its programme declaration the purpose to re-evaluate existing standpoints towards monetary integration and to prepare the CR for joining the Euro zone, which is really happening now. So, the system which I had built up long ago starts coming to live again.
What do you feel is the main advantage of a single European currency in 2016?
Finalising the process of the Czech economy integration into European monetary structures. The Czech Republic will be able to fully participate in the formation of the economic and monetary union. All that will have a positive impact on our national economic policy because the key features of the system are enquiries of medium-term balanced public budgets and structural reforms supporting long-term economic growth. Irreversible fixing of currency will bring increased stability to the financial sector and decreased risks of monetary turbulences. Sharp exchange rate fluctuations represent a great risk for a small open economy such as ours. Eliminating exchange rate risk towards Euro zone countries, which are the most important trade partners for the Czech Republic, will bring profit especially to our companies. These advantages will become evident in the decrease of transaction and security costs as well as decrease of investment uncertainty. The household sector will profit from higher price transparency which stimulates competition.
What do you think is the main disadvantage of Euro – after the series of financial injections to some Euro zone countries?
From the point of view of the Czech Republic the main risks are connected especially to the reaction of economy to economic disruptions. For economic policy of the Czech Republic, the loss of independent monetary policy would mean loss of important tools which are able to help reduce negative impacts arising from different domestic and foreign economic development, and thus facilitate economic convergence. In connection to the recent development in the Euro zone, the system, created in the frames of the Euro zone as a help to the countries in need, i.e. providing so-called financial injections, is also essential. Of course, if the Czech Republic were a Euro zone member, it would have to participate in such system in a solidary way.
What benefits will a bank union bring to the Czech Republic?
Right now, the office of the government is analysing experience of other member countries with the bank union. I consider the main advantage of the bank union a possibility to become part of a stable system headed by a respected institution such as the European Central Bank. In addition, it is a possibility to influence creation of supervisory standards for financial institutions all over Europe. Entering the bank union would also mean our participation in a decision process of major credit institutions of the Euro zone as well as a possibility to access the funds from the Single Fund used for bank crises solutions.
Server Peníze.cz, consulting company Partners … you left your legacy in many places. Are you planning to return to a private sector in the future, where you had been successful?
I think it is important that I know life in both private as well as public sector. It gives me the ability to focus on important issues and be clear about what helps Czech companies and what on the contrary slows them down. Currently, I am not planning any change but I am open to anything interesting life will bring me next.
During the world financial crisis you worked for the World Bank. Have the priorities of the bank changed due to the crisis?
Quite substantially. First, now the World Bank is focusing much more on issues such as financial inclusion and high-quality financial market supervision but most importantly, the World Bank started to intensify focus on advisory activities and economic reforms support.
It has been more than ten years since the bank moved the Czech Republic from the group of developing countries among those of world economies. Have we succeeded?
For the time being yes, but let me use the words of a classic – we have to try harder. Bringing our economy closer to developed European economies stopped in past years as a result of restrictive economic policy of previous governments, the digital economy fast train is speeding away from us and we don´t know how to profit from smart Czech brains. Above all, however, we are not able to explain to people how well they are – economy is growing quickly, unemployment is at its minimum but people don´t seem to see this.
Mr Prouza, who do you consider a real leader?
Among current politicians it is Angela Merkel who at the time of crisis was able to give up her caution and bet everything on the fact that Germany is a country strong enough to be able to take care of millions of people fleeing from slaughter and terror. However, the highest inspiration for me is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. One of his quotes gives a very good definition of the way I perceive my task: It is not that we give more to those who already have a lot what would test our progress, but if we give enough to those who have too little.
By: editorial (jk)