"I hope we will be thought of as an honest broker" - Milena Vicenová on the Czech EU presidency

This Tuesday marks the halfway point of the Czech Republic’s EU presidency. On a recent visit to Brussels, I met one of the people instrumental in organizing the Czechs’ time at the helm, Milena Vicenová, the Czech Ambassador to the European Union. In the calm of her Brussels office, just a few days before Prague made headlines for the fall of the centre-right government coalition, Ms Vicenová discussed how the presidency had been going so far. For her personally, it has meant a great deal of hard work:

“I came to Brussels on January 7, 2008, exactly one year before my first ambassadorial meeting. At that time I had to first of all familiarize myself with Brussels, with the surroundings and the institutions. And I had to meet as many people as possible. So, the first six months were dedicated to meeting people, understanding their roles and tasks, and preparing staff here at the permanent representation for the Czech EU presidency.

“So that was the first part of the year 2008. The second half of the year was dedicated to preparing the content of our presidency. Of course, the priorities were drafted and finalized in the Czech capital as well as here. And we always worked from two bases. Here in Brussels, though, we are responsible for over 3,000 meetings over this six-month period, so there was a lot of organization of the technical aspects of this to be done here.”

The EU and all of its constituent bodies is a massive organization, from what I have seen over these last couple of days, did you find it at first extremely difficult to navigate?

“Well, I knew many of the EU’s institutions because in the past I was working in the field of EU relations, the pre-accession programme, and the preparation of the Ministry of Agriculture in the run-up to enlargement, and so I knew many people and I also understood, I would say, the organisation and the work of the Commission. But here I had to understand the role of the Council and of the Parliament as well, which I would say was rather difficult. So, there was quite a lot to learn.”

Do you think that the priorities that the Czech Republic went into its presidency with have in fact become the priorities of the presidency, or would you say that fate has meant the Czech presidency has had to focus on other things?

“I was surprised to which extent our priorities were very well chosen and very well prepared. We had our ‘three Es’: energy, mostly energy security, economy and external relations. And already in the first days of our presidency, an unexpected crisis clearly supported our choice. We were responsible for many difficult discussions to overcome the energy crisis, to find a solution, to discuss it with Russia and with Ukraine. And the second aspect, the economy – well, of course, we all know that we are facing the most difficult financial and economic crisis in the history of the European Union, and external relations, the situation in Gaza – there is nothing more to explain. So I would say that we were really very precise in targeting our priorities.”

What would you say, however, about the reaction of the Czech EU presidency to Gaza, which was one of the first big crises that it had to face. The view in the international press was perhaps that it wasn’t handled so well…

“Well, the situation is extremely difficult, and we all know that there has been a crisis there for many decades. And no one could expect a prompt solution, that wouldn’t be realistic. It was very important that the Czech presidency together with the Council and the Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner went immediately to the spot and checked the situation on the ground. That was crucial. And nobody could expect really a prompter solution. That is just not realistic.”

And what would say about the recent spring summit which was chaired by Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek?

“This summit was really a very good summit, it was a real success. And I am really persuaded that the role of Mr Topolánek, who was chairing the European Council, made it so. Because he was chairing the council in a very strong way, but he always gave sufficient place and space for everybody to express their views as well. I mean, there was a clear outcome, and again we touched upon all ‘three Es’. We discussed energy, we discussed economy and external relations.”

You said that you had had a great deal of experience of the EU before, having worked at the Czech Agriculture Ministry. But now that you are working in Brussels and not Prague would you say that you have been surprised by some facets of the EU, which you didn’t see before?

“I would say that it confirmed my former feeling or understanding of how cooperation here works. First of all, it depends a lot here upon personal relations. But there is always good will to find a common solution, and this has been confirmed also now during the Czech presidency.”

You say a lot hinges upon personal relations, how much of the decision making actually does take place behind the scenes?

“It is sometimes discussed, prepared, explained and understood. It is necessary, there are that many decisions, that many legal proposals or financial proposals to be agreed and approved. It is necessary for these things to be explained also behind the scenes, and then in the meetings the roles are clearer and more familiar, but all of the main decisions are taken in the regular meetings.”

Before the Czech EU presidency, you came out and said that there were aspects of the French EU presidency which were not making it that easy for the Czechs to take over. Would you say that you cooperated well with the French in the end, and how are the relations between those two countries in the EU currently?

“I mean, relations are very good, one could not always comment on each piece of information which appears in the media. We can’t complain about our cooperation with France, nor with Sweden. With Sweden, the cooperation is very close, I would say. Now we are discussing our common priorities, our common steps, and it will be a smooth handover to Sweden in three months time.”

And one last question, how do you hope the Czech EU presidency is remembered, or for what do you think the Czech EU presidency will be remembered?

“Resolving the gas crisis will be really accepted as a very positive step. Second I think Entropa will be probably mentioned. And I hope we will be thought of as an honest broker.”