As the country prepares to take over the EU presidency Jan. 1, 2009, government preparations are gearing up to ensure that officials on every level are well equipped for the job. While progress has been made, there’s still a great deal of work to be done — from bureaucratic measures like finalizing a national agenda to finer details such as designing commemorative neckties for government ministers.In the second week of July, Cabinet ministers attended a training session hosted by Eliška Coolidge Hašková, who served as an assistant to five U.S. presidents, and Financial Times editor George Parker. The same week, European Commission Secretary-General Catherine Day and three former European commissioners offered tips on the running of the commission.
“The Czech Republic has always been considered the heart of Europe,” said Michaela Jelínková, spokeswoman to Alexandr Vondra, deputy prime minister for EU affairs. “And for six months in 2009, we’ll also be the continent’s brain. I think most people are very optimistic, and most think it will be successful and a good opportunity for the Czech Republic. Of course, that also means they will have expectations and we’ll have to deliver.”Jelínková was just one of many ministry spokespeople to attend a compulsory seminar in April on public relations, where experts from Germany, Slovenia and Finland shared their experiences with media dealings when their respective countries held the presidency. During a press briefing following the session, former European commissioner Leon Brittan praised the Czech government, saying it was the only EU member to ask for advice from the European Commission prior to taking over the presidency. In addition, a public communications campaign will begin in September, to promote the presidency throughout the country and beyond. As part of this, ministries have begun a recruitment effort for translators and interpreters, both of which are desperately needed to aid in the campaign, Jelínková said. “The EU itself isn’t making headlines easily here in the Czech Republic,” she said. “I think we’d like to use our presidency to promote EU matters within the Czech Republic.”
On the agenda
In May, Czech officials finished work on what ministers refer to as “the 18-month program,” a legislative document which outlines a nation’s priorities for the duration of their presidency. Often referred to among ministers as a “road map,” the document is a collaborative effort with officials from France, which currently holds the presidency, and Sweden, which will assume the role in July 2009. “All in all, it is a historic challenge and opportunity for the country as well as for the Czech civil service,” said Alexandr Vondra, deputy prime minister for EU affairs. Although she did not disclose much information regarding the document’s contents — which are scheduled to be published at the end of the year — Jelínková predicted that energy and environmental issues will be at the forefront.
Officials say the government may feel especially cautious in taking up the presidency for the first time, much like a new parent.“We look forward to the presidency,” says Zuzana Opletalová, spokeswoman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry. “But sometimes we’re a little [tense] … with it being our first presidency.” Opletalová said the ministry was increasing the number of its employees, as well as organizing an ongoing educational program for officials, which will end in autumn. While Slovenia was the first post-communist country to hold the EU presidency from January to June, many local authorities feel the country is more akin to Finland’s position before it assumed the position for the first time in July 1999, in terms of the amount of preparation that’s taking place behind the scenes. “Slovenia was certainly very good at the organizational level,” Jelínková said. “Politically, it wasn’t easy for them, and they set the bar very high. But some issues … could have been [handled] differently.” Jelínková added that ministry meetings will be held in different cities nationwide in an effort to get as many people from different regions involved, whereas Slovenia opted to hold most bureaucratic events in the same city. This tactic is also useful in spreading awareness of EU matters among citizens in more rural areas, she said.
Ministry officials are preparing for a visit by all European Parliament members in December, followed by a visit by the European Commission in January 2009. Jelínková anticipates that the fervor will recede once the presidency is actually under way.“Most foreign officials have told us that the worst months aren’t during the actual presidency, but rather two to three months beforehand,” she said. “Although it may be the summer holidays, we’re certainly not relaxing. There’s no time to relax.” Added Vondra, “The officials from former presidencies often say that, apart from being a hard and serious job, the presidency is also fun. I thus dare to say that most of us are looking forward to it.”