Ministers are outlining the priorities of the Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU to parliamentary committees, in a series of meetings.
Czechia holds the Presidency of the Council until the end of 2022. A first series of hearings takes place from 11 to 13 July. A second set of hearings will happen during the first week of September.
Agriculture and Rural Development
The impact of Russian aggression against Ukraine on food security is a key priority, according to Agriculture Minister Zdeněk Nekula on 11 July. The Presidency will seek an early start for the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to provide member states with flexibility and temporary exceptions to handle the crisis. The Presidency will also prioritise negotiations on the sustainable use of plant protection products.
A number of MEPs called for the way in which solidarity corridors for agricultural exports from Ukraine work to be improved and for a balance between EU food production and the proposed reduction in the use of pesticides. Some MEPs agreed that some derogations from CAP rules will be needed, while others warned against weakening the CAP and called for organic farming to be supported instead.
On 12 July, Jiří Kozák, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, highlighted a three-fold challenge caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine: the distribution of grain from Ukraine; securing sufficient humanitarian relief; and breaking the Russian narrative that the food security crisis is the EU’s fault. Mr Kozák also said that, for the Post-Cotonou Agreement, the Presidency is determined to conclude the remaining steps as fast as possible.
MEPs agreed on the importance of dealing with the immediate and longer-term impacts of the war on global food security. They also raised the question of refugees in Ukraine and its neighbours. Others questioned the Presidency on their priorities in the Sahel, on the migration issue on the EU’s southern border, and the integration of humanitarian relief and long-term development policy.
Transport and Tourism
On 12 July, Transport Minister Martin Kupka, and Deputy Prime Minister for Digitisation and Minister of Regional Development Ivan Bartoš, stressed that the Presidency will focus on measures to decarbonise transport, promote railways, make sure solidarity lanes for Ukraine are working and increase the resilience of the tourism sector. Minister Kupka promised MEPs that the work on new rules on the Single European Sky, alternative fuel infrastructure, sustainable fuels for aviation and maritime sectors, intelligent transport systems and TEN-T revision would advance.
Transport Committee MEPs urged the Presidency to put more efforts into addressing mobility poverty and road safety, make sure EU countries would unite in response to any possible new COVID-19 pandemic and asked for the option of providing EU financial support for solidarity lanes in Ukraine to be explored.
On 12 July, Zdeněk Nekula, Minister of Agriculture, said that the Presidency’s top priority will be to ensure food security in the EU and improve the competitiveness of the sector compared to third countries. Despite being a landlocked country, the Czech Presidency will also focus on fishing quotas, reaching agreements on EU fishing possibilities with third countries, as well as fisheries-relevant initiatives related to the Green Deal.
MEPs stressed the need to help fishers due to the impact of the war in Ukraine. They welcomed the intention to make fisheries more competitive but stressed the need to strike a balance between the socio-economic and environmental aspects of the initiative. Finally, some reaffirmed the idea of reforming the Common Fisheries Policy, even if the Commission is reluctant to do so.
Internal Market and Consumer Protection
Industry and Trade Minister Jozef Síkela told MEPs that the Presidency will pay special attention to better enforcement of Single Market tools and services, deeper market integration and high consumer protection, including raising consumer awareness on sustainable consumption and online risks. The Presidency will work to move forward on negotiations with MEPs on machinery products and consumer credits and to reach a common position in the Council on the General Product Safety Regulation, the Artificial Intelligence Act, and Transparency and Targeting of Political Advertising.
MEPs quizzed the Presidency on empowering consumers in light of the twin transition, the implementation of rules on dual quality of products, the update of travel package rules in light of the pandemic and the ongoing digital priorities (including the new Chips Act and European Digital Identity).
Women’s Rights and Gender Equality
Marian Jurečka, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, said the Czech Presidency will strive to achieve progress on the pay transparency directive. On an EU strategy for care, they will focus on long-term care and providing refugees from Ukraine with high-quality care. Member states’ diverse positions on preventing violence against women need to be respected, he said, although the definition of online sexual violence will be discussed in November. There will be Council conclusions on gender equality, and the Presidency will look into economic parity for men and women with a focus on youth.
Several MEPs asked if Czechia is planning to ratify the Istanbul Convention. Many welcomed the objective to reach a deal on pay transparency, stressed that LGBTI rights and sexual and reproductive health and rights must be protected, and highlighted Parliament’s call to add the right to abortion to the EU Charter of fundamental rights.
Employment and Social Affairs
On 11 July, Marian Jurečka, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, identified as key issues: managing the influx and integration of refugees, food and energy affordability for the most vulnerable and the fight against child poverty. Further priorities include reaching a common position in the Council on improving conditions in platform work, and progressing on the pay transparency directive.
MEPs asked for the Social Climate Fund to be made operational to protect the most vulnerable during the green transition. Some MEPs urged for the SURE instrument for the preservation of employment to become permanent and for a more ambitious use of the Child Guarantee. Finally, MEPs asked for an extraordinary Social Summit to address the impact the energy and inflation crisis and the recession are having on employment.
Environment, Public Health and Food Safety
On 11 July, Environment Minister Anna Hubáčková told MEPs the priorities are: reaching agreements on the Fit for 55 files; nature restoration law; protecting vulnerable households during the green transition; and global cooperation on climate and environment. MEPs questioned the minister on preparations for the UN conferences on climate change (COP27) and biodiversity (COP15), as well as the Russian war’s impact on the environment.
On 12 July, Health Minister Vlastimil Válek said the Presidency will focus on the fight against cancer; disinformation on vaccination and vaccines for new variants; progress on Council’s position regarding the European Health Data Space (EHDS), and healthcare services for Ukrainian refugees. MEPs quizzed the minister on fair prices and access to vaccines, the impact of the war, rare diseases and the impact of climate change on population health.
Later that day Agriculture Minister Zdeněk Nekula highlighted food security, sustainable agriculture, animal health, and achieving progress on “Farm to Fork” and agreeing on the “Deforestation” regulation. MEPs questioned the minister on the sustainable use of pesticides, the Russian war’s impact on food security, genomic technologies, the financing of the green transition of the agricultural sector, and meat production.
On 12 July, Deputy Prime Minister for Digitisation and Minister of Regional Development Ivan Bartoš said the Presidency will focus on the future cohesion policy, analysing which instruments are helping to converge EU regions best and ensuring green and digital transitions, while at the same time providing for the necessary flexibility to face new developments.
MEPs stressed cohesion funds should be used to develop a capacity that ensures safe transit of food and supplies, in current time of war. They also warned that cohesion policy principles should not harm the environment. MEPs also urged the Presidency to support the idea of setting-up a new generation Just Transition fund and reviving the EU Cross Border Mechanism.
Economic and Monetary Affairs
Russia’s war in Ukraine and rising inflation will be the backdrop for most of the Presidency’s priorities, Finance Minister Zbyněk Stanjura told MEPs on 13 July. The Presidency would be prioritising reaching agreements on EU rules for a global minimum tax on large multinationals, green bonds, anti-money laundering rules and energy taxation. It would broker discussions on integrating Repower EU into the Recovery and Resilience Facility to remove Russian influence from the EU economy, and on the update of the EU’s fiscal rules.
MEPs focussed their questions on what the Presidency was concretely planning to do to save the rules on a global minimum tax, and how it would orient talks on a revision of the fiscal rules, and to what extent it is possible to address inflation without impinging on the independence of central banks. The looming economic difficulties and the debate around unanimity voting in the area of taxation were also raised by a number of MEPs.
Culture, Education and Youth
On 13 July, Culture Minister Martin Baxa said the Presidency will focus on finalising the EU’s 2023–2026 Work Plan for Culture. He also promised to work to open negotiations on boosting funds for the Creative Europe programme, as the current funding does not meet the sector’s needs. Minister of Education, Youth and Sports Vladimír Balaš focussed in his presentation on digital education, intergenerational dialogue and active support for the European Year of Youth, with a conference on the latter planned for 6 December 2022.
MEPs asked about plans for the Media Freedom Act, due to be announced in September, ways to include Ukrainian students in the EU student mobility programme, and integrating Ukrainian refugee children and young people into the EU education system. They also raised issues around sporting activities, the implementation of the Copyright directive, and completing the European Education area.
“Free trade agreements are the core tasks of the Czech Presidency,” said Trade Minister Jozef Síkala on 13 July, a statement that Trade Committee members welcomed. They urged the conclusion and ratification of free trade agreements with, among others, New Zealand, Mexico, Chile, Australia, India and the Mercosur countries, insisting that all trade deals must respect the EU’s values and sustainability goals.
Trade Committee members asked the presidency to work towards reaching a Council position on the review of the Generalised Scheme of Preferences and the anti-coercion instrument and to finally conclude the Post-Cotonou agreement. Several MEPs urged the Council to intensify cooperation with Africa and to consider gender equality when working on trade.
Foreign Affairs Minister Jan Lipavský on 13 July outlined five priorities: Ukraine, energy, defence, economy and democracy. Stressing the need to continue standing by Ukraine, he warned against the dangers of “Ukraine fatigue”, and called for weapons to be supplied to Kyiv more quickly and for greater efforts to facilitate the country’s post-war reconstruction. He also stressed the need for a strong transatlantic partnership and for discussing how the EU should reassess its relations with Russia in the long term.
MEPs quizzed Mr Lipavský on a range of subjects, including on the EU’s long-term vision for relations with Russia, how to move ahead with the EU enlargement process, in particular on Bulgaria’s blockade of North Macedonia, the necessity to grant EU visa liberalisation to Kosovo and the need to counter Russian false narratives in countries south of the EU, including Africa.
Industry, Research and Energy
Ivan Bartoš, Deputy Prime Minister for Digitisation and Minister of Regional Development, said that the Presidency will work on the digital agenda, communication resilience, sustainable digital ecosystems, cybersecurity in the EU, security of ICT supply chains, and digitalisation of public services. The Presidency will aim to secure a Council position on the AI Act, a general approach on the eID regulation, and to continue work on the Data Act. It will also work to reach an agreement in Council on the proposal to reinforce cybersecurity in the EU before the end of November, he said.
On industry and energy, Jozef Síkela, Minister of Industry and Trade, said that the Presidency will work to reduce the EU’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels as set out in the RepowerEU plan, continue work towards climate neutrality, while securing affordable energy for citizens. The Presidency will work on fast-tracking permitting procedures in renewables, improving energy efficiency and energy savings, as well as on the transition to low-carbon and renewable energy sources. It will also focus on diversifying supplies and assist the Commission with the EU’s energy platform for joint purchasing, to ensure that all member states have enough energy supplies for the winter.
On research and innovation, Vladimír Balaš, Minister of Education, Youth and Sports, said that the Presidency will work to advance the development of the European Research area and the EU research ecosystem. It will focus on synergies in research and innovation funding, on the enhancement of the European research infrastructure ecosystem, and the development of a new European innovation agenda. It will also aim to finalise the legislation on the Horizon Europe joint undertakings with regards to semiconductors, and the conclusion of association agreements with third countries on Horizon Europe.
On space policy, Martin Kupka, Minister of Transport , said that the Presidency will remain committed to ensuring that the EUSPA agency for the Space Programme, based in Prague, has the best conditions and provides the best standards. The main priority will be the programme for secure connectivity, and the Presidency is looking to start talks with MEPs as soon as possible. The Presidency will also focus on innovation and the use of data and services from EU space systems, and to extend existing capacities to protect the EU’s satellite systems.
Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs
The Presidency strongly supports EU responses to Russian aggression, including the fight against impunity and collecting evidence on war crimes, Justice Minister Pavel Blažek told MEPs on 5 September. He said that Eurojust and its new mandate can play a key role, while stressing that ongoing work on cracking down on sanctions violations will continue.
European Affairs Minister Mikuláš Bek said that the work on the rule of law will play a major role and announced that the next discussion on the issue will focus on Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia and Sweden. The Presidency will also work on the ongoing procedures on Poland and Hungary, in dialogue with the national governments.
MEPs encouraged the Presidency to produce country-specific recommendations on the state of rule of law. MEPs also called for more engagement on e-Privacy and e-Evidence, asked for a stronger stance on revelations about spyware being used and raised the issue of media monopolisation in certain countries.
On the same day, First Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Vit Rakušan said the Presidency is ready to start negotiations on the Screening and Eurodac regulations and work on structural solutions for solidarity and legal migration. Online child sexual abuse, the mandate of the EU drug addiction monitoring centre, the political governance of the Schengen area and Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria’s inclusion in it, are also priorities.
MEPs asked for more details on the Council’s timetable on migration files, on data protection concerns in relation to fighting online child abuse as well as on pushbacks and human rights violations at the EU’s external borders.
On 5 September, Justice Minister Pavel Blažek identified progress on the directive on the protection of the environment through criminal law and the digitalisation of justice systems as key issues. Further priorities include corporate sustainability due diligence, the directive to tackle abusive lawsuits targeting critical voices, so-called SLAPPs, and legislation on Artificial Intelligence (AI).
MEPs stressed the importance of a liability regime for AI. Some MEPs urged for progress on the revision of EU geographical indications. Finally, MEPs asked for an ambitious approach on the SLAPPs directive, underlining that it is of vital importance for freedom of expression, fearing Council might weaken the initiative.
Following the presentation by European Affairs Minister Mikuláš Bek on 5 September, MEPs inquired on the follow-up to the Conference on the Future of Europe, including the revision of EU Treaties and the reform of electoral rules, already initiated by Parliament. They also called on the Presidency to focus on the fight against foreign interference and disinformation, and the protection of the EU’s legal order from breaches of the rule of law.
Minister Bek replied he intends to have a political discussion on a Convention to revise the Treaties in October, aiming to have a vote in November and pass on the matter to the European Council. Electoral law reform will be debated in October, but he warned MEPs the process will be politically complicated. The Presidency will seek a common approach on European political parties and foundations by the end of the year. On the rule of law, he promised that the topic will feature prominently in all General Affairs Council agendas.
Security and Defence
Deputy Defence Minister Jan Jireš said that European “strategic culture” in the EU has changed quickly since the start of the Russian aggression on Ukraine: the “EU had discarded some of the taboos that had been in place before.” The Presidency will focus on three main areas: EU-NATO cooperation; EU support to Ukraine; and the implementation of the strategic compass.
MEPs asked questions on the best way to cooperate within the EU to support Ukraine, noting that this war was a test for the EU’s strategic cooperation. Some MEPs declared that the EU has everything it needs to succeed, but lacks a common and strong political decision-making process. After underlining that this war is going on longer than expected, some MEPs questioned Mr Jireš about EU diplomatic efforts to end the war.