Interview with Vladimir Špidla, chief aide to the Czech PM
Photo: Flickr/ DG EMPL – Youth on the Move Prague, Vladimír Špidla
“The transition has to be fair, only then will society accept it,” former Czech Prime Minster Vladimír Špidla says about the phase out of coal in Czechia.
Interview by Kateřina Davidová & Barbora Urbanová, Centre for transport and energy (CZ) with:
Vladimír Špidla, Chief Aide to the Prime Minister, former European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, and Prime Minister of the Czech Republic between 2002 – 2004
Martin Kloz, coordinating adviser at the Office of the Government, expert on energy, renewable sources and the environment
What does the process of Just Transition mean to you?
VŠ: It is clear that there has to be a transition towards renewable sources of energy and towards sustainable development in general. The main problem is the fact that this is not only a technological and organisational transition but also a big social transition, which affects everyone, and if the social aspects of the transition are not done right, it will end up in failure. If you do the simple math, you get to see that when we leave coal mining and coal energy behind, the new industries will provide new jobs, often in higher numbers than the old ones. However, this means that tens, hundreds, even thousands of people will have to be re-qualified, which is a complicated issue. Therefore, it is necessary to have an ongoing discussion and do social and political work to determine the fates of those impacted by this transition. It is much more a social transformation than a technological one.
Why do you think Just Transition is important in the Czech Republic right now?
VŠ: If you read the Bible you learn that God is almighty but at the same time he is also infinitely just. That shows that justice is a crucial value for people: this is the reason why God is almighty – so that he can achieve justice. Of course perfect justice does not exist but if some process is evidently unjust, society will not be willing to accept it. And because a transition like this is a complex process, there will always be some shortcomings. But if society supports the process, it will mobilize itself and overcome it. On the other hand, if the process is evidently unjust, people reject it and every minor shortcoming is further exacerbated.
How do you think environmental and social policy can best be interlinked in the Czech Republic?
VŠ: Only through continued discussion. That means you have to make use of all the existing structures – political, social, non-governmental – and all of the existing societal platforms in order to balance out all the legitimate interests in society. There is no easy method which can immediately change everything. It is based on thousands of discussions and minor clashes and it is always important to use the structures that in some way represent organized society.
MK: Also, environmental policy creates new jobs.
VŠ: The basic dichotomy that undermines environmental policy is the notion that environmental protection means the disappearance of jobs. That needs to be systematically disproved because that’s not true.
While drafting the strategy for the restructuring of the coal-mining regions, did you get inspired by some other state?
VŠ: Yes, we did. I have experience especially from the EU and there has been restructuring of coal basins in many countries (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany). For us, the closest inspiration was North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany where we conducted study trips and consultations with the locals.
MK: They are also close to us time-wise as the transition in North Rhine-Westphalia is still ongoing.
VŠ: Furthermore, there is an existing strategic dialogue between the Czech Republic and Germany, which includes energy transition as well. Thus we had a stable platform for inter-governmental cooperation. The German colleagues were very active and the cooperation took place also on the regional level. Saxony, where a similar process started, recently joined too. The restructuring is certainly a process with international aspects.
Who first came with the initiative to create the restructuring strategy?
VŠ: We found inspiration in the EU.
MK: From the beginning of our work here, we tried to make it one of the key tasks of this government and gradually the idea took roots. It began to be realized in 2015. The realization fell under the responsibility of the government plenipotentiary for the three structurally affected regions.
Could you describe the roles different stakeholders played in the process (e.g. the affected regions, their inhabitants, trade unions etc.)?
VŠ: The key operational structure was the plenipotentiary. Both in northern Moravia and Silesia and in northern Bohemia, there are structures for social dialogue – the Regional Economic and Social Agreement Councils. These Councils are social partners which means they include public administration, employers, employees and trade unions. The discussions there formulated substantial parts of the final decisions.
MK: There are also newly created Restructuring Councils, where the main stakeholders of the three regions are represented, i.e. local governments, industries, universities, and they have a supervisory role over the course of the process.
VŠ: One principle that was kept throughout the process – and it is one of the German inspirations – is that all the deciding actors are represented and are treated at the same level.
To what extent were citizens involved in the whole process?
VŠ: They weren’t involved that much. There were open seminars and such but the program was battling with time pressure and thus the participative elements will have to be more developed later. The main participation so far has been through the Economic and Social Agreement Councils.
MK: This is more developed in the second Action Plan where everyone can post their suggestions – so far there is about 250 suggestions from concrete people in the regions. It is expected to grow even further.
Are the citizens sufficiently informed about their possibilities for participation?
MK: There are Conferences of Restructuring where especially the main stakeholders are represented but they are open for everyone. There is also a special website dedicated to the program.
How do you evaluate the final form of the Strategic Framework and the Action Plans? Is there something important missing?
VŠ: I cannot assess it in such a complex manner. Our goal was to put together a plan and bring it to life, which we’ve achieved. But I am not yet in a situation to make a general assessment and evaluation of success – that will show only after a very long time. In principle, I would say that it is a much more participative material than what we are used to in the Czech Republic and that it doesn’t lack anything substantial. However, it definitely isn’t a finished deal.
MK: It is a continuous process. A new Action Plan is prepared every year so if it transpires that something is missing, there is an opportunity to add it to the next phases. The first Action Plan was approved in July this year and some of the provisions have already been fulfilled. In my view the main shortcoming of the Strategic Framework is the fact that it is not yet fully embedded and there is a risk that with some political changes the process will be slowed down. It is possible it will not have such political support in the future.
Which points of the Action Plan were politically most contentious?
VŠ: I don’t think there were any particularly contentious points. The main problem was to find a good balance between the three regions and the individual actors in order to make sure it is a participatory process where nobody is favoured in any way. The hardest discussion was about the governing structures.
MK: It was quite difficult to convince some ministries that this is not an interference with their competencies – on the contrary, it is meant to help them sort out their problems and create a useful platform at the regional level. In the end everybody more or less understood that.
VŠ: This is a trans-departmental action, which is quite unusual here, and it is always problematic to overcome the resistance and prejudice of individual departments.
What do you think are the most important building blocks of the future development of the concerned regions?
VŠ: The basic idea is that the region needs to move away from an economic monoculture and become a classic, evenly-developed region. For northern Bohemia the key is human capital development, meaning education, research etc. Northern Moravia has an advantage in that they have relatively significant universities there and the level of human capital is higher in general, therefore for them the main task is to complete the restructuring of the coal mining industry.
MK: Based on a macroeconomic analysis, seven pillars were identified and included in the Strategic Framework. These are: entrepreneurship, foreign investments, research and development, human resources, social stabilization, natural environment and infrastructure.
Does the current strategy consider those who might feel as the “losers” of this transformation?
VŠ: It is the aim of the strategy but whether it will manage to fulfill it, only time will tell. In essence it is an attempt to show that even after the former industry dies there can still be a normal and full life. If this is achieved, then it will be those in the hardest situations who will benefit the most. If it isn’t achieved, we shall see. But we really cannot judge that now.
MK: There will be a reduction in brown coal mining but there are existing alternatives that up until recently weren’t known or weren’t taken into account. We are finding ways of realising the change while keeping the number of “losers” to a bare minimum.
What do you think is the best way to “sell” the Just Transition process to the Czech public, which is often sceptical towards “green” policies?
VŠ: Only through continuously discussing it and showing the people what is being done. No great change happens without a struggle and the struggle simply has to be led. And I think that we can see a progress here. Whenever there are some visible achievements, we have to discuss them without any hidden agenda. Not by making a big campaign but by persistently building a network that actively cooperates and gathers information about the progress.
MK: Then there are also examples from abroad that show it is possible. There used to be hundreds of thousands of people employed in the coal industry in North Rhine-Westphalia; next year they are closing their last mine and it doesn’t have impact on their employment rates. But it has taken them thirty years.
VŠ: This is one of the important things that the German example has proven to us: a) transformation is possible, b) it can be successful and c) it takes decades to complete.
Are there sufficient resources set aside for realising the Action Plan? What other sources of financing could be used?
VŠ: The basis is formed by the state budget and so far it looks like the resources are sufficient. The key idea is not to bring in money from the outside (even though to some extent too) but to create some reasonable idea about how the money should be distributed there. It is an attempt to coordinate the use of resources in the most efficient way possible.
Should the European Commission allocate more money to support Just Transition?
VŠ: I think that if you have a single currency in a non-optimal currency area, then you have to redistribute. And generally I don’t think the EU is allocating enough resources to the structural and cohesion funds; I think they should be increased manifold.
MK: I believe the Commission is preparing some special funds to support Just Transition.
How do you think the governments of other EU countries could be inspired to adopt similar strategies of Just Transition?
VŠ: Only by being successful. We have shown that it is possible. That it is possible within one election period to garner enough support to create a complex strategy for the restructuring of regions where even after 25 years the economic transformation has not been completed and where the local communities have been hit the hardest by it. It was important that the three regions united and created a large enough critical mass to put pressure to begin the process. Preference has been given to what the regions have in common as opposed to what divides them. But the approach will only serve as an inspiration if it successfully leads to its goal.