Czechs Today Karel Barták on life inside the European Union
For the past two years, Karel Barták has been the chief of the European Commission’s youth and culture communications unit, making him one of the highest-ranking Czechs in Brussels. Prior to that, he spent over a decade as the Czech News Agency’s European Union correspondent. So how was the transition from reporting on the EU to becoming an official himself? Karel Barták told me over a café a la russe on Brussels’ Place Madou:
“There are surprises behind the corner everyday still, but I must say that I am getting used to it little by little. I had been following the Commission from outside for 11 years, and I thought that I pretty well knew what was happening inside. Once I became an insider, I realized that I really didn’t know much about what it was like to be inside the institution. So I must say that I was more surprised than I thought I would be.”
What have the surprises been?
“It is a huge bureaucracy, and you have all the difficult bureaucratic procedures which are, at first glance, very difficult to understand. And you really have to chew your way through them. You find out how difficult it is to communicate at this level when you have 27 member states, 450 million people, 27 mentalities, 27 traditions, so the message tends to become very shallow at the end of the day when you have to take all of these different constraints into consideration. So, what we are trying to do now, which needs a lot of effort and also human resources, is trying and have 27 tailor-made messages. That makes things a little bit easier, but as I say, communicating Europe is not a very gratifying exercise.”
Is it not sometimes a rather frustrating aspect of the job that you are always finding a best-possible compromise, but a compromise nonetheless? Does it bother you that you always have to leave some things out because of the sheer number of people you are trying to please?
“The European Union is a compromise. And everything that is being done here is a compromise. The whole concept is about reaching consensus and putting together the opinions and wishes of 27 member states and then coming out with a common denominator, which at the end of the day is never perfect for anybody, but with which all can live. So that is, in a way, the very definition of the European Union and the very small steps you take to move things forward.
“And communication is also, in a way, a result of a compromise. You know, you always have to weigh all the pros and the cons and come out with a message which is somehow acceptable for all the different customers that you have.”
You were here right throughout the negotiation process leading up to the Czech Republic’s EU accession. You have even written a book about this long and painstaking process. Would you say that it is extremely momentous that five years after those negotiations were successfully finished the Czechs are now heads of the European Union?
“Well, formally we are a member for five years, but the negotiations took at least – it depends what you count as real negotiations – but we were in the process for many more years. So we are not really newcomers or greenhorns in the European institutions, and there are enough people in the Czech administration who are very well acquainted with the European Union, not just for five, but for ten or 15 years. So, from this point of view, I think that the country on this level was rather well prepared for its presidency, and there are lots of people here who know what an EU presidency consists of.
“I have witnessed here many presidencies of the EU’s founding members which have been really bad presidencies. So, it is much more about preparation, it is much more about making the necessary effort. Of course, whenever the country is the president of the EU for the first time, there is a lot of expectation. And the presidency is being watched by all the others with a lot of attention. And every little mistake will be blown up and exaggerated, so from this point of view, it is a very responsible job.”
Would you say that five years on from actual accession, and more like 15 years on from the start of Czech negotiations in Brussels, your view of the whole institution has developed and changed and become more realistic?
“Well, I would say that I was never really a real enthusiast. As a journalist you cannot be. It is true that once you become a part of the institution and you witness the bureaucracy, especially as someone who has not worked in administration before, you live through different shocks and surprises and you see the cumbersome ways of bringing things about.
“What I would say is more serious, though, is the lack of vision. This
is what I think we are suffering from right now. The governments of the
member states themselves have problems with their own public opinions.
know that Europe is not a popular topic; they know that it is not
you are going to win an election with. So, governments really have a habit
now – and I mean most governments in Europe – to sell everything that
is positive as their own success, and everything that is negative they
blame on Brussels. And so at the end of the day you have a scapegoat –
European institutions. And people start to forget that every decision is
made by these ministers sitting around a table, that nobody else apart
these sovereign member states are making these decisions. And this is the
perception that people start getting; that everything at home is more or
less fine, but it is them in Brussels making our lives difficult. And if
this continues, I think we are going to have – we have seen with these
three referenda and so on – if this continues, I think we are going to
have a huge problem in Europe.”