Current Affairs Change of guard at Prague Castle signals end to animosities between Prague Castle and Brussels
President Miloš Zeman took up his duties at Prague Castle on Monday in what is his first day in office as head of state. The chain-smoking, outspoken former prime minister has already started outlining his plans for the future; they range from establishing smoking-quarters in various parts of the castle to hoisting the EU flag on the castle premises, signaling a departure from the Eurosceptic policies of his predecessor.
The former Social Democrat prime minister may have spent ten years in retirement, living a quiet life in the Moravian Highlands, but now he’s back with a vengeance. He has lost no time in surrounding himself with a team of loyal supporters who remained by his side when the odds were against him; and, while he says he knows the limitations of his powers in office, he is clearly determined to be heard on matters of importance.
First and foremost, President Miloš Zeman announced a change of policy with respect to the EU. He confirmed that he would be signing the European Stability Mechanism Treaty, which his Eurosceptic predecessor Vaclav Klaus refused point blank to ratify, and said that he had invited European Commission President Jose Manual Barroso for talks in Prague on which occasion they would hoist the EU flag at Prague Castle together. Mr. Zeman defines himself as a Euro-federalist though he is not an advocate of a unitary state. He is also in favour of adopting the euro when the country is ready for it.
While the change of policy towards the EU from the country’s new president is likely to draw a huge sigh of relief from the government, which has in the past been hard put to explain the discrepancy between the official foreign policy line and Mr. Klaus’ anti-EU sentiments, it may be in for more advice than it wants to hear from the new head of state on other matters.
Mr. Zeman has stressed that while is fully aware that his presidential powers do not enable him to propose amendments to the law, he plans to exert his influence on those who can. He is scheduled to meet with the heads of parliamentary and senate committees in the near future and plans to attend sessions of the government whenever it is due to debate bills that he feels strongly about. Using the right of veto would be “doing too little, too late”, he told Czech Television. The president’s first foreign trips are also slowly falling into place. His first visit abroad will traditionally be to neighbouring Slovakia, his second to neighbouring Austria, although no dates have as yet been set. As commander in chief of the Czech Armed Forces, President Zeman has also asked the military to arrange for him to visit the Czech troops in Afghanistan.
And, though fresh in office, Miloš Zeman is already working on the image that he wants to present, expressing high esteem for Czechoslovakia’s first president T. G. Masaryk, whom he regards as a role model. Inspired by President Masaryk’s famous Friday meetings with intellectuals and artists at Lany Chateau, President Zeman says he wants to hold informal meetings with experts from different fields at the same venue.
However, creating a positive image of his presidency may not be easy after Mr. Zeman declared war on the Czech media in his inauguration speech. The new head of state accused the media of brainwashing people and manipulating public opinion saying the majority of Czech journalists combined “minimum knowledge with maximum self-confidence”. In this respect Miloš Zeman will be no different from his predecessor Vaclav Klaus who fought the media throughout his 23 years in politics and who once noted that journalists were the worst enemies of mankind.