The Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU: an opportunity for civil society to collaborate and strengthen democracy

Published: 14 July 2022

Since 1 July 2022, the Czech Republic has held the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. This is a fundamental role to define the legislative priorities in the EU and a prestigious opportunity for any European country that takes the Presidency. The Presidency – which is known as the “European semester” because it rotates every six months – also represents a unique context for promoting the dialogue between government and civil society.

To understand what is at stake during the Czech Presidency and how non-governmental organisations are contributing to the debate around the EU priorities, we spoke with Jana Miléřová, a coordinator at Glopolis, a backbone organisation of the NeoN platform. NeoN, a Civitates grantee partner, is an informal network that associates 15 thematic platforms from the Czech Republic, putting together more than 400 NGOs. It coordinates advocacy actions for the democratic sphere. They are working towards promoting a stronger civic space a priority during the Czech Presidency of the EU Council.

What does this EU Council presidency mean for the Czech Republic and its citizens, especially considering the historical period we are living in?

It’s a big challenge because the Czech Republic is holding the presidency in a very dramatic situation. There is a war in Europe for the first time since the Second World War. So, this is a very different setting than it was back in 2009 when the Czech Republic held its first EU presidency. And I feel that the current Czech government is taking it very seriously. You can see this from how they framed the political priorities for the Czech presidency, under the motto “Europe as a task”.

This already shows the level of consideration that the Czech government is giving to the EU presidency. What has been stressed is that the Czech Republic will act as an “honest broker” in many of the ongoing EU legislative processes. At the same time, this is a real opportunity to facilitate CSOs’ on the current challenges that are coming with the energy crisis, but also with war and migration. I hope that Czech NGOs can step in this sense and help to transpose these difficult topics from the European to the national level, connecting them with the lives of regular citizens.

What role then do you think that this presidency will play in strengthening the public dialogue and making democracy in Europe stronger than now?

As representatives of civil society, we can take up some long-term issues affecting the CSO sector such as civic participation and access to decision-making, access to public and private financing. We are aiming to have an impact on and frame those issues within the EU processes, trying to make Czech politics and the state administration more attentive and willing to make progress. I think that the opportunity to strengthen the democratic sphere is creating the space for dialogue among different actors and try to communicate about complex issues with regular citizens. Every one of us can contribute to this.

In this context, what are your priorities at NeoN?

At NeoN, we are focused on creating a stronger democratic and civic space. Our ambition is to increase the engagement of Czech civil society organisations and their networks within the preparation, but also implementation, of the Czech presidency. That’s why we wrote a joint collective paper which presented the key prerogatives for the Czech NGOs and their networks related to the five current political priorities the Czech government set. And we managed to extend the understanding and the scope of those five governmental priorities. First, managing the migration crisis and the post-war recovery of Ukraine. Then responding to the energy security and improving Europe’s defence capabilities and cybersecurity. Finally, strengthening the resilience of the democratic institutions.

With our network of NGOs, we managed to expand the view of what the Czech presidency sees under each of these five crucial points. For example, among what contributes to the resilience of the economy, the government didn’t include the necessity to support culture and creative industries. Of course, the most important for us is the resilience of the democratic institutions and we hope to contribute to the EU rule-of-law mechanism, making sure that the civic space is part of this assessment. In short, we hope to push forward the European Civil Society strategy.

Looking forward to January 2023, when the Czech presidency will end, what does a successful Czech presidency look like from Neon’s perspective? What would you like to see at the end of these six months?

The presidency has just started, and we fully focus our energy and capacities on this half-year. But for sure, we have been already looking forward: we hope that the first step at the end will be to assess together this presidency. Not just evaluating the single thematic goals, but also supporting the dialogue between different sectors. We hope to have a joint meeting with the Government Committee on the EU and have some concrete outcomes for more effective civic participation, and recognition of CSO networks as partners in policy dialogue.

Our role is to make sure that the presidency does not finish by the end of this year, but that it will have some strong follow-up, especially in terms of how the green and digital transition and post-covid recovery plans are transmitted into the national policies and how we, the CSOs, can more effectively input mechanisms such the committees to National Recovery Plan and ESIF programmes.

We will support the Czech next steps in the cooperation, to link the EU level of advocacy with the Czech one. The added value of Neon is that we connect different actors, we make sure that they know each other’s objectives and they seek what they can do together for the democratic and civic space. And this is what we will also do after the presidency, knowing that this will be a common ground that we can use to build better participation with the government.

The NeoN coalition, led by Glopolis, has grown into a vibrant infrastructure for collaboration of 18 networks that together defend and proactively cultivate a democratic, civic space. The coalition represents more than 400 CSOs and thousands of activists all together and strives to enhance recognition of the CSO advocacy networks and strengthen their role as representative and constructive partners in promoting effective and inclusive responses to societal challenges.