Interviews

Tomáš Petříček: I see maintaining social harmony to be paramount

Published: 7. 7. 2022
Author: Luboš Palata
Photo: Photo archives of Tomáš Petříček
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Tomáš Petříček worked as minister of foreign affairs for two years. He left under tumultuous circumstances when a call for his resignation came from, among others, President Miloš Zeman, who disliked the strong support Petříček expressed for Ukraine and his calling Russia a threat. He has been out of international high politics for more than a year but he still keeps a close eye on what goes on.

Sweden and Finland are set to become NATO members. Two countries that have always prided themselves on their neutrality. Is this good news for the Alliance?

True, both countries have managed to hold on to their neutrality for a very long time despite some hurdles along the way. But, during the Cold War, they both also realized who their closest political and trade partners are. This eventually led to them entering the EU in 1995. By signing the Treaty of Lisbon, they also accepted a number of commitments to other member states, some of which also mean having to come to their defense. And so, saying that Sweden and Finland are truly neutral is essentially no longer true. Applying for membership in NATO, a defense alliance, is a clear signal that both countries are aware of the need to increase their safety with regard to the growing tensions around the world. Russia has become a threat to them, and the people of both countries no longer believe that neutrality would protect them.

Even Ukraine had contemplated becoming a neutral country and not participating in military blocs after the Soviet Union collapsed, but Russia still went ahead and annexed Crimea in 2014 and stirred up conflict in the Donbas region. Both countries will reap benefits from becoming NATO members, far outweighing the risks. Finland is one of the sturdiest countries in the world and has extensive experience dealing with hybrid threats as well as other safety risks currently out there. Furthermore, NATO, as well as the EU, have been aware of how important the arctic region is in terms of safety for some time now. Even though some countries are opposed to it, especially Turkey, I am sure that they will both be accepted expeditiously, and in so doing the Euroatlantic fellowship will show that it stands strong and united.

Why is it that NATO keeps growing, adding countries such as Macedonia or Albania, but the European Union is shrinking?

That is a good question. I see the main reason being the weak political will of certain EU member states. Also missing is a certain level of political leadership that would speed up the reforms the candidate countries have to make before accession to the EU and help keep the motivation and trust of those countries in the process. Because it is a long and strenuous one, as evidenced not just by Albania or North Macedonia, but also by Montenegro and Serbia. On the other hand, let’s be honest and say that NATO is predominantly a defense alliance, and the expectations it has of its members correspond to that. There is no common market that goes hand in hand with all the rules that allow it to function. Its goal is not to equalize economic differences between the member states. Solidarity, in the case of NATO, is based on safety. The EU appropriately expects that the candidate countries will put their domestic affairs in order, which requires way more effort than when the same country aspires to join NATO.

What do you think will be the outcome of the war in Ukraine? Is defeating Russia, which would lead to it becoming a second-grade power, in the interest of Czechia and Europe?

Maintaining the independence and freedom of a democratic Ukraine within its former borders is in our interest. I am afraid, however, that Putin has not formulated an exit strategy, which will drag the conflict out. A protracted and costly war, exacerbated by other factors such as the EU speeding up its efforts to wean off Russian gas, could truly exhaust Russia’s resources to the point of internal political turmoil. This is where we should think twice about what exactly it is we are hoping for. A humiliated, destabilized Russia, one that is also ridden with revisionist ideas, will certainly pose a much bigger threat to all of Europe. And so, we should carefully think about the strategy we will adopt towards post-war Russia in Czechia as well as on a European level. We should have a serious discussion about the possible potential outcomes. Because whatever happens, it will be big. Allow me to remind everyone that it was all the way back in the 1990s when Václav Havel stated that if the USA wants to help any of the former Soviet countries, it should start with Russia. Hopefully, we will find a way to make Russia become a partner, not a threat – similar to how Germany managed it after WWII.

After many years of indecisiveness, Czechia has started investing big in its military. Is this the right move when we are still recovering from the Covid crisis?

Investing in our safety will be a necessity, and not just in the military. Our troops need modern equipment. We should scrutinize closely the acquisition process first to make sure that public funds are used effectively and that the army actually benefits in terms of its operational ability. Besides that, we should also invest in the overall durability of our society, in our ability to protect key infrastructure and deal with new kinds of threats, including those appearing with the rise of new technologies whose impact we are not yet able to fully evaluate.

Besides the war, we are also dealing with a refugee crisis. There are over 200 000 Ukrainian migrants in Czechia. Should we be trying to help them start a life here or should we wish for their return back to Ukraine?

We should be ready to accept that a large number of the Ukrainian refugees will stay here long term. But they should be free to decide whether they want to stay here or return to their homeland once the war is over. There have been differing public opinions. Some feel that Czechia should work hard to make sure the refugees stay here because our workforce needs bolstering, while others say they should leave posthaste because they feel that the refugees are being provided aid at a detriment to locals who have been forced to deal with sky-rocketing living expenses. I feel that we should be looking at this as an opportunity to take steps that will make our entire society better. And I view the Ukrainians who came here to escape war as part of that society. When should we deal with the tragic housing situation in Czechia if not now? Now is when we should be investing in education to make sure that all children get the best we can offer them. I see maintaining social harmony to be paramount at a time when a large part of society is under immense amounts of pressure and facing a plethora of issues. If we fail in this regard, our ability to fight future crises will be compromised, which is not something we can afford. If we manage to deal with all of these issues, I believe that many Ukrainian refugees can start new lives here and it will prove beneficial to our entire society.

The author works as a European editor for Deník

“Maintaining the independence and freedom of a democratic Ukraine within its former borders is in our interest,” says Tomáš Petříček.

CV BOX

Tomáš Petříček (born September 27, 1981, in Rokycany) is a former minister of foreign affairs and current deputy chairman of the ČSSD.

He graduated in international relations from the Faculty of Social Sciences at Charles University. He also earned two MA titles from the Centre Européen de Recherches Internationales et Stratégiques in Brussels and the University of Warwick.

Between 2007 and 2009, he worked as an assistant to MEP, Libor Rouček, and between 2014 and 2017 as an advisor to MEP, Miroslav Poche

In 2017, he was appointed as deputy to Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, Michaela Marksová.

In August 2018, he was appointed as deputy to Jan Hamáček, and in October, he became minister.

On April 9, 2021, he ran for the position of chairman of ČSSD at the party conference. He came in second and decided to step down as deputy chairman. Three days later, he was removed from office as minister. He then started working at the Institute of International Relations.

Halfway through June 2021, he dropped out of running on the ČSSD ticket in the parliamentary election. He was once again elected deputy chairman at the ČSSD conference in December.

Petříček and his wife Ivana have a daughter and a son.

With Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jacek Czaputowicz (February 2019).

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