International relations are anarchic; the purpose of the EU is not to produce quick, easy solutions

With Dr. Stanislav Myšička from the Department of Political Science, Philosophical Faculty UHK, about the discipline of International Relations, the arena in which the European Union (EU) and its Council exist. The Czech Republic presided over the Council for the past six months. What does such a presidency mean, and what role does the European Union play in today's globalized world? Why do young people perceive the EU more positively than older generations?

In political science, we say that the international environment is anarchic. What does this concept mean? Is it a permanent, unchanging condition?
That is a big question. Stacks of books and articles have already been written on this topic, as it is one of the central concepts of international relations (IR). Anarchy is best explained as its opposite, which is a hierarchy. We live in the Czech Republic, and here political relations are hierarchical. There is a political representation, which is in charge of, for example, law enforcement agencies, such as the police or the army. And I, if I somehow violate the rules of society, will receive a response in the form of punishment. But the international environment is understandably not complete chaos. Certain norms, written and unwritten, have been in effect for a long time. However, in IR, there is no police officer who can force someone else to obey him. But the question of force is more complicated. Some states may have more enforcement capacity than others. Even within the state hierarchy, there is space. The state is not and cannot be everywhere. There is some degree of anarchy in every social system. If there wasn't, then we're just robots who carry out the will of the state; that's utopia. However, some states have tried to achieve this.

The anarchy in the IR has several effects in many other areas. The global economy, the fight against climate change. A higher degree of anarchy means that some solutions or common procedures are more difficult to enforce. They cannot be simply ordered.

And to its permanent condition. Alexander Wendt says that anarchy will always be present in the IR, but what is changing is the view of the states on the whole system. It changes over time. Take interstate conflicts, for example – there are far fewer now than in the past. There are other types of disputes, but that is another topic.

So there is a certain degree of regulation in the IR, after all. Is this the effect of those norms you mentioned?
Norms are ubiquitous. Once you board a plane, you are part of the international aviation regime for transporting civilians. This is a classic example of a global regime that contains thousands of pages of technical regulations. Within the IR, we often read bad news from the media, military or diplomatic conflicts, and similar stuff, maybe because everyday reality is pretty boring, even though it allows us to do many things. For example, within the EU, free movement of people, goods, finances, and services. We take it for granted, but the standards that regulate it had to be created and have a complicated history. Anarchy is still present, but it has metamorphosed a bit.

Are there any effective, successful international collaborations? Or is it just states following their own interests?
Even with an elementary knowledge of history, we understand that it is impossible to always behave egoistically and promote only self-interests. From an economic point of view, various connections and alliances have arisen. Despite the fact that there is a certain asymmetry in power, it pays off for both the small "players" and the big ones. In such situations, sharing part of one's sovereignty with someone else is necessary, which is difficult for states. In the context of the EU, however, this happens routinely and all the time. Cooperation is already rooted in us historically.

What role should the EU play? Or which one is it currently performing? Is it sufficient?
I think many people expect a certain global role from the EU, which it cannot play due to its self-imposed limits. It does not produce quick foreign policy solutions because consensus-building is needed. For example, this manifests in hesitancy regarding sanctions against Russia or energy reforms. It is a double-edged sword of the complexity of the organization and European law. Other organizations can operate more simply because they are, in principle, established on a simpler basis. We have various checks and balances, a whole system of institutions cooperating with each other. And what role does the EU play? It depends on which dimension.

When we focus on the economy, if we add up the entire EU's nominal GDP, we are the second biggest market behind the United States (US) and ahead of China, which happens to be one of the EU's largest trading partners. As for the diplomatic role, we have to consider the geographical context. It will be easier for statesmen and politicians to promote greater involvement in solving conflicts or problems closer to us. Terrorism in the Sahel, migration in West Africa, or now, for example, the war in Ukraine. The EU is more active in these areas than, for instance, in the South China Sea. So the EU plays a bigger or smaller role here and there, but it is quite powerful in some matters. Although it is a very complex organization, it is still not a state. In addition, it lacks essential foreign policy powers. It is subjected to the unanimous consent of all member states.

Will the European Union ever become a state?
No, I don't think so. Theoretically, it cannot be ruled out. As a scientist, I have to consider every option. And history is unpredictable. But it seems impractical to me; many issues are part of national decision-making, and the principle of subsidiarity still works, which is correct. Some superstructure that would micromanage absolutely everything has no pragmatic justification.

You mentioned China, which still resonates significantly in society in many different areas, but primarily in connection with trade. What role does China play in the IR? What is China to the EU?
In this case, I don't think anyone in Europe really knows. The approaches of individual states to China vary. Recently, the media reported that China, or rather the company COSCO, is buying a quarter of the port in Hamburg from Germany. Originally a third was supposed to be purchased. Germany is trying to break away from dependence on Russian energy imports. Other countries are toying with the idea of greater continuity with China. Much of the weight of the topic is political rather than economic, again due to Russia and its hostility. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is not having it easy; there are voices asking him to take a more assertive stance toward China. But the business does not agree.

In my opinion, EU-wide relations with China will not cool down in any fundamental way. China has kept its hands off the war in Ukraine because both results are a win for them. On the other hand, the relationship between China and the US, which has been rather cold for a long time, is also important here. China and the US waged a trade war in 2018. Of course, we could also be more assertive and take collective measures that would hurt China economically. But if they have one power center, their reciprocal response would probably be much more effective. Surely no one wants to get to this point.

So is there an effective common EU policy towards China? Or is it rather a question of China's bilateral relations with individual states?
The EU has been building a common position for a long time since the 1990s. However, states have several tools to build bilateral relations. Even though according to the Treaty of Lisbon, most of the EU's policies are so-called "shared" and, within the framework of trade, it is necessary to proceed uniformly, due to the customs union, no one is telling private companies how much money to invest in China. There is also a lot of waiting now to see how China will fare economically, as it is in a bit of a recession.

How does China perceive the current war in Europe unleashed by the Russians?
According to official statements, they understandably appeal to the fact that it is unfortunate and that there should be a ceasefire. At the same time, however, the Chinese media do not fail to add some "scathing" remarks. They often explain the escalation of the conflict by long-term pressure from the West, which corresponds with their anti-American rhetoric and position. China remains a quasi-ally of Russia.

Is China a challenger to the current international system?
It is, and it is not. I understand that doesn't sound like a very good answer, but I'll explain. China does not want to radically change the rules, not at all. It is more important for the Chinese to assert themselves more, to play a more significant role in the whole system. For example, the new Silk Road, as one of those big international projects, is not something that should purposefully change the environment of the IR. Their rhetoric has actually been pretty much the same since the 1950s. They insist on obeying international principles, mainly that each state has an autonomous right to political development and foreign policy. In this context, they criticized the USA as well as the Soviet Union. And in doing so, they also secure the sympathy of the political elites of other states that were or are somewhat disadvantaged within the international system, many of them in Africa.

If we move from foreign policy to internal EU affairs, which greater powers do the states currently presiding over the Council have? Why is the presidency important?
If we were talking about the legislative process and subsequent executive decisions, the presiding state has no extra rights in the sense of the right to veto or more votes. The presiding state should fulfill the function of a good manager and move the agenda forward effectively. Of course, each state creates a program that it wants to promote, but it still orients itself according to the current environment. This can most clearly be seen, for example, in the current situation; one of the biggest priorities is the war in Ukraine, logically. Even during our first presidency of the Council from the beginning of 2009, the agenda focused a lot on reducing the effects of the global financial crisis.

One of the most critical tasks is the bureaucratic level. Creating a meeting agenda, inviting all relevant parties, and then trying to facilitate consensus. Sometimes there is an outcry on the Internet that the EU is controlled by Germany, which is nonsense. The states in the union also have certain informal roles, and there is a certain asymmetry in them, but when it comes to decision-making mechanisms, the system is robust. In the end, the majority must agree on the measures. So the idea that something is brewing in Brussels that our political representatives do not know about is ridiculous.

Many people do not realize that the presidency in the Council is relatively short, but many things that the presiding state is working on are longer-term. Once the presiding states hand it over, they have to coordinate it so that the larger projects get completed.

On the website that informs citizens about matters connected with the Czech presidency over the Council, it is written that the Czech Republic works as part of the "presidential trio". What does that mean? Why a trio?
Yes, this system is already institutionalized in the EU. The presiding country should coordinate activities with the previous and upcoming presiding countries. It is in order to avoid sudden changes in the overall agenda that would not be effective. There are types of policies that span even more than the three presidencies. And they last, for example, ten years. There is a need for the countries that take turns at the presidency to cooperate.

For a long time, even just before the presidency, the Czech Republic's priorities within the framework of the presidency of the Council were not available on that website. Now that they are there, is it possible to pick one single most important issue?
Again, we return to the fact that circumstances somewhat determined it. Apart from the security situation, which is important, but is more a matter of NATO, then it is certainly energy, which is closely related to it. Unfortunately, we cannot immediately evaluate whether the presidency was or is successful in this regard. There is latency in the effectiveness of those measures. We will see how the entire crisis caused by the war will affect individual states and the EU. We know that Ukraine is now even more oriented towards the EU, but we cannot consider this a success of the presidency; it is more a result of the whole context.

The Czech Republic already presided over the Council once in 2009. Could we somehow compare these two presidencies? Which one was more successful?
That isn't very easy. The most memorable thing is that in the first half of 2009, our presidency was complicated by the fall of our national government, the cabinet of Mirek Topolánek. And in general, the situation at that time was a bit strange. The ODS (Mirek Topolánek's political party, ed. note) government launched a campaign before the presidency with the title "Evropě to osladíme", i.e., a very noticeable sarcasm in Czech (English equivalent would be "Tough luck Europe", ed. note) illustrating a certain degree of skepticism towards the EU. This skepticism is already relatively reduced today; perhaps the war in Ukraine also helped the decline.

In 2009, energy security was also discussed more intensively. At that time, the majority of states were not yet willing to break away from dependence on energy supplies from Russia. On the contrary, a number of politicians lobbied for energy cooperation with Russia, including our president, Miloš Zeman. Of course, no one could have known how far Russia was willing to go at the time, but the warning signs were there. And now we have a chance to take the presidency responsibly.

According to the May 2022 Výzkumník Seznam survey, support for EU membership is largely age-segmented. Young people have a positive attitude toward the EU. The older a citizen is, the more likely they are to be skeptical of the EU. Can this public opinion improve following our presidency?
Most people do not follow foreign policy on a regular basis. Unless, of course, it's a war or something. My wife sometimes watches ČT24 (Czech TV news station, ed. note) and is interested in politics. Definitely less than me, but still above average. The theorists of democracy may believe that politics is the life passion of every citizen. But we know that it is not like that. It was never like that, not even in Greece in the times of Pericles. When people categorize important areas of politics, they mention healthcare, education, and standard of living. Foreign policy is at the bottom of that list. Our presidency is foreign policy, and if something fundamental has not been negotiated during that time, which would, for example, have a fundamentally positive effect on the standard of living of people in our country, then there will probably not be any improvement in the perception of the EU.

As for the survey, the socio-economic level of the interviewees and people, in general, plays a big role there. People with lower incomes and those who do not feel they would derive any benefits from the project, that is, our entry into the EU in 2004, are logically more skeptical. But, of course, it also depends on what people expected from it. Disappointments often stem from unrealistic expectations. And younger people no longer have a comparison with times before the EU, so they can afford to be optimistic, which is perfectly fine.

We discussed the EU's effective common policy towards China and the conditionality of the European Union's policies on the surrounding events. Is there a long-term, successful, joint European policy?
The first thing that comes to mind is the single market. Economic integration in the technological age requires a considerable effort in protecting personal data. With the single market, it is necessary to cooperate intensively to prevent foreign fraud and the like. In general, consumer protection is a major topic at the European level that directly affects citizens.

Of course, the EU also has many successful policies abroad, like peacekeeping missions around the world, most often in Africa. Helping to build the rule of law by training judges and lawyers. Law enforcement training etc. But these activities don't directly affect people here, so they don't notice it that much. Unfortunately, politicians abuse the topic of the EU in a negative light. But the EU is made up of states that are always involved in all decisions and policies. We do not submit to some evil power from Brussels. We participate in it, and politicians should explain it to people better.

Do you think people still have the feeling that decisions are being made about us without us?
As I said, it is naive to think that most people are interested in politics on a daily basis. If we were to ask how our legislative process works on the street, very few individuals would know the details. People have some vague idea of how the EU works. It is hard for them to imagine that there is an institutional body that shares legislative and executive powers with the government. And you often read from the less serious media that "the commission has decided something" or "the commission is discussing a proposal", which are often lumped together. And even then, proposals and decisions are always based on a political debate that all states can access. But you rarely read this. It then logically has a negative impact on people's opinions.

In a few weeks, the elections for the president of the Czech Republic will be held. Will the theme of the European Union play any role in the campaigns and during the election?
I would say no. Some open Euroscepticism would not help any candidate at the moment. We are still operating in the context of the war in Ukraine, so no one wants to stand on the opposite side now, i.e., to somehow defend Russia. In this regard, I think domestic issues will play a primary role. 

In 2022, on the occasion of the presidency of the Czech Republic in the Council of the European Union, the University of Hradec Králové participated in the solution of the development project "Communication of priorities and topics of the Czech presidency to the Council of the EU with a focus on issues of higher education and education". As part of this project, we co-organized the one-day music festival "EUforia stage" in Pardubice, at which representatives of the Department of Political Science of the Philosophical Faculty UHK publicly discussed the issues and opportunities of the presidency.