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Tomáš Petříček
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Minister Petříček Gave an Interview to the Financial Times


Financial Times, 22. 11. 2018 (Int. ed.), Alex Barker, James Shotter 

Tomas Petricek is a central European rarity: a firmly pro-EU minister in a region where Eurosceptic parties hold sway.

While Viktor Orban’s Fidesz and Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice have swept away their mainstream rivals in Hungary and Poland, in the Czech Republic, Mr Petricek’s Social Democrats have clung to power: they are the junior partner in a coalition led by the anti-establishment Ano party, founded by billionaire tycoon Andrej Babis.

It has not been an easy alliance. On Friday, Mr Babis will face a confidence vote in connection with the latest twist in a long-running political scandal over the alleged misuse of an EU project subsidy. And in a sign of deep divisions within the Social Democrats about whether to ally themselves with Mr Babis — who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing — the party will abstain, rather than back him.

Mr Petricek, who was appointed as foreign minister last month, conceded that the debates within the party about whether to join Mr Babis in government this year were “very heated”. But he acknowledged that if the party were to abandon Mr Babis altogether, he might replace the Social Democrats with the far-right SPD party, a move that could damage the country’s standing in Europe.

“If the Social Democrats leave the government, then there might be, for our European position, an even worse scenario. This is also about our responsibility as a party. We want the country to develop how it is run,” he told the Financial Times in an interview in Brussels.

While Poland and Hungary have repeatedly clashed with the EU over concerns that their self-avowedly “illiberal” governments are undermining the rule of law, the Czech Republic has sought to remain closer to the EU mainstream.Hungary and Poland have often used the so-called Visegrad Four — a loose grouping with the Czech Republic and Slovakia — as a way to push their interests within the EU, particularly on topics such as immigration, where all four countries have been resolutely opposed to accepting migrants from Syria and northern Africa.However, Mr Petricek said that while the forum was important for the Czech Republic, it was no substitute for the country’s bilateral relations with other states such as Germany. In a veiled jibe at the governments in Budapest and Warsaw, he also stressed that the V4 was set up to promote “the values of 1989”, when the countries of central Europe finally escaped 40 years of communism.“By accession to the EU, we joined a club with certain rules, and the rule of law, democracy, freedom of speech, these are the basic values of the European Union, of Europe, and we should defend them,” he said.He was also at pains to differentiate his government’s stance from the pro-Russian leanings of Czech president Milos Zeman, who has described Moscow’s annexation of Crimea as a “fait accompli” and criticised the sanctions imposed on Russia in response.“It is the government who is responsible for foreign policy . . . and I believe there is a clear message also on the EU, Nato, Russia,” he said. “Certainly the fact that we are firmly integrated into EU and Nato is a pillar of our security.”Mr Petricek, who once worked as an adviser in the European Parliament, said that while he was personally in favour of joining the euro, the Czech Republic was unlikely to do so under the current government.

But he stressed that the government would keep improving the country’s fiscal and macroeconomic position so that its successor would be able to join the single currency if it chose, and insisted that his government remained “pro-European”.

“[This government] looks on the EU as a space where we can pursue our interests. Probably, the government is also more [prepared] to debate reforms when it comes to the European Union,” he said.

“It is always difficult not to use labels in this but it is not probably the most Euro-optimistic government, but at the same time it is certainly not a Eurosceptic government.”