Czech presidency to give EU "a taste of its own medicine"

By bne IntelliNews December 17, 2008

Dominic Swire in Prague -

The handover of the rotating EU presidency from France to the Czech Republic on January 1 comes at a time when the 27-member bloc is crying out for strong leadership and a steady pair of hands. However, there are fears that this is precisely what Prague won't be able to offer and many observers are already talking of damage limitation.

The country's slogan to promote the EU presidency domestically, Evrope to osladime, which can be translated into English as "We'll give Europe a taste of its own medicine," doesn't bode well for the six months in charge. Apparently there is a Czech pun in there somewhere, but it bypasses Prague philosophy student Bohumil Cap. "I don't understand it. It's absurd," he pleads in a smoke-filled pub. "It sounds like we are effectively sticking two fingers up at Europe. I'm afraid this presidency is going to be a disaster."

There are certainly enough pitfalls ahead. Aside from dubious slogans, there's the ongoing global financial crisis, the US missile shield, the Lisbon Treaty, doubts that Prague is up to the job and a loose cannon for a president. As if all that weren't enough, there are now also serious worries about the stability of the Czech government itself.

The leader of the main Czech opposition party Jiri Paroubek said on December 12 that the EU presidency would not deter him from tabling a no-confidence motion, effectively attempting to topple the government, should he see fit. These ominous words come at a time when the centre-right ruling ODS party is still recovering from a trouncing in October's local elections that saw it lose control of the senate and all 13 regional governments. "The Czech government is not very stable," observes Petr Stabrawa, Czech Analyst at economic forecaster Global Insight. "Whether the country can lead the EU through this difficult time will really depend on the programme it will present and political stability over the next couple of weeks."

3 Es

The programme the government wants to promote is a "Europe without borders," focusing on the "3 E's" - the economy, efficiency and external relations. To what extent it will be able to stick to these plans remains an open question. Aside from the external concerns and a wobbly government, there have been suggestions from within the Czech administration that, just weeks before handover, a significant number of positions remain to be filled. "Regarding the number of people working for the presidency, we are satisfied at moment," government spokesman Jiri Franticek Potuznik attempted to reassure, shouting down a mobile phone from Brussels. However, he admitted there was scope to "employ some more people if there was an urgent need."

Yet such reassurances have not been enough for France, which has rather cheekily unveiled plans to hold a post-presidency financial summit in January after it is supposed to have handed the leadership to Prague. A move that somewhat diminishes the credibility of the Czech leadership, according to Vit Benes, a researcher from the Institute of International Relations in Prague. "It is in some sense humiliating for a smaller state to accept this kind of deal," he tells bne. "But on the other hand that's the way the EU works."

But if the Czech ship isn't steady now, it's going to have trouble coping with the numerous tsunamis ahead. Aside from a financial crisis that has knocked the global economy sideways and seen the two major EU members, the UK and Germany, bickering over how to deal with the problem, there are also the not-so-small matters of the US missile defence system in Central Europe and ratification of the Lisbon Treaty to contend with.

The latter could prove to be an embarrassing "elephant in the room" for the Czechs, who remain the only country in the 27-member bloc that have yet to hold an official vote - whether a referendum or parliamentary one - on the issue. Part of the reason is a result of the delaying tactics of Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who is fast gaining notoriety as one of the few remaining politicians that still denies the existence of global warming. Klaus' disdain for Brussels and all it stands for has led him to refuse to hoist the EU flag over Prague castle during his presidency. It is gestures such as this that have contributed to the Czech's tag of potential troublemakers within the bloc.

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