What are the goals and priorities of the Czech presidency?
Mikuláš Bek: At the start of the year, we still believed that only the coronavirus pandemic would have a great impact on the design of the programme for our presidency that we’ve been struggling with for a few years. Then we were hit by another unexpected event in the form of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the related crisis that has been affecting our everyday lives significantly.
When I took up my duties as Minister for European Affairs, I knew that freedom of the media should be one of the priorities. This issue has become particularly relevant due to the fact that the European Council, and in particular its Vice President Věra Jourová, is planning to present a European legal instrument to promote media freedom during our presidency, which will be dedicated to the same issue.
Most of the other urgent fields of action have been on the table for a long time. However, the situation with regard to the war in Ukraine has clearly accelerated the debates in some of these issues, while others have gained importance. These are security in general as well as energy supply security, and these issues are linked to the joint defence policy and the resilience of democratic institutions.
Which are the greatest challenges for the new government with regard to the presidency?
Bek: Right from the start, when the Russian troops invaded Ukraine, I have been a vocal supporter of granting Ukraine candidate status as soon as possible. This is why I am all the more pleased that the European Council already made its decision about the country’s candidate status in its meeting in June.
Ukraine needs the perspective that its people who were forced to leave the country will be able to return to their home country after the end of the war. It is a great challenge for us in this context to facilitate the debate regarding independence in the energy sector and security in the EU, including rebuilding Ukraine after the war.
The Czech Republic has been part of the EU for 18 years. To what extent has this membership changed and influenced the country? What is the current mood concerning Europe?
Bek: I experienced a large part of the time in which we have been an EU member state in an academic role: first as the prorector and later as the rector of Masaryk University in Brno. To summarise this experience, I would say that these were very successful years, and I would even say that this has been the case for Czech people in general. They were years of economic upturn and compensation for past losses, caused by 40 years under the communist regime.
As has also been the case in a number of the “old” member states, however, there has always been a significant part of the political scene in the Czech Republic that has taken a stance towards the European Union that is critical, sceptical, hostile or at least ambivalent.
The Czech public’s attitude towards the European Union has improved gradually, in particular since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and is now above the EU average. This is, without a doubt, also connected to the current crisis caused by the ongoing war, in which the EU is perceived as a pillar of security alongside NATO. I think that the current Czech government coalition has added another positive impulse to the relationship to the European Union, as it has returned the Czech Republic to Europe's political centre stage and to a political culture of negotiation and argumentation and searching for possibilities for generating consensus.
Any European success in resolving the consequences of Russia’s aggression and the resulting energy crisis can further improve the relationship to the EU. It goes without saying that failure to solve the problems would in turn lead to strong disillusionment. We must succeed together.
How do you see the relations between the Czech Republic and Germany? What do you want from Germany?
Bek: During my entire academic life that started in the early 1990s, I have in some way been involved in promoting and developing Czech-German relations, and the same is true for my short political career to date. Our economic, cultural, personal, and I dare say also political relations are excellent.
I want the same things from Germany as from Czechia: that we do not repeat mistakes made in the past, that we prove able to learn and will rid ourselves of the consequences of mistakes made in the distant past, such as the disaster of National Socialism or the Czech expulsion of Germans and being subjected to communism, and that we will also move beyond mistakes made more recently, such as our shared energy-related and economic dependency on Russia. Czechs and Germans have plenty of experience with authoritarian regimes and they therefore appreciate freedom all the more.
What do Germans need to know about Czechs to understand them better?
Bek: Among all the European nations we may have gathered the greatest stock of collective memory about the ways in which different multi-national and multi-state structures and entities function. We were part of the Holy Roman Empire for almost 1,000 years, we were part of the Austrian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. We were also part of the Third Reich as a protectorate and spent 40 years as part of the Soviet Empire. This experience gives rise to a certain degree of caution regarding centralism and emphasis on the importance of subsidiarity. It may also have enabled us to see how shared historical stages can be perceived from the point of view of Prague, Vienna or Munich.
I will give just one example that is historically remote but still relevant today. In schools and authorities in the Habsburg Empire, other languages – and the universally used Latin – were replaced with German over the course of the 18th century. Those who spoke German could think of this development as making state administration more effective and modern, or as an expression of national emancipation. From the point of view of everybody else, however, it was an obstacle that gave rise to unequal conditions with regard to education and career opportunities. You only need to read the biographies of leading Czech intellectuals, politicians and national enlighteners of the 19th century, which contain a wealth of evidence of this conflict of linguistic inequality that was also social inequality resulting from the centralist decision to Germanise the Empire.
This is why it might be a good thing that the – unofficial – working language of the European Union is English, the language of the country that is no longer part of the European Union. This means that we all share the same conditions in our struggle to precisely express ourselves in a foreign language.
What do you love the most about your country?
Bek: I am from Moravia. I love the wine and the traditional music from the border region of Moravia and Slovakia. Part of my family’s history is linked to Bohemia and the Bohemian Forest, which to this day is my ideal image of a landscape that is truly and originally “Bohemian”. I am a musicologist, and I love Smetana, Dvořák and Janáček.
What is your personal relationship to Germany?
Bek: I started to learn German when I was seven years old. When I was a child, the GDR was where I went on holidays abroad: to Rügen, the Harz Mountains, East Berlin and Dresden. As a doctoral candidate, I spent the first half of 1990 studying at Humboldt University in Berlin. This was a very interesting time. I was able to follow the process of Germany’s reunification locally.
My scholarship from the Czechoslovak government was paid in East German marks. I was able to save a lot of money every month to smuggle half of it to West Berlin via Checkpoint Charlie. The GDR customs officers still performed checks at the time and foreigners could “export” only a limited amount of the East German currency and exchange it into West German marks to buy two books, for example.
I walked around the book store on Kurfürstendamm for a long time, and it was difficult to choose from this wealth of literature from the areas of musicology, sociology and philosophy that was not available in the Eastern bloc at the time. I walked everywhere in West Berlin, as travelling on public transport cost as much as another book or a concert or theatre ticket. I was also able to attend lectures at the Technical University and the Free University, which was a great experience.
With regard to my work, I have felt almost “at home” in Germany ever since. I am very glad to be a member of the University Council of Augsburg University. This allows me to get a better insight into German regional studies than would be the case through media or my work contacts on the ministry level.