The Czech Republic became the first former Soviet satellite to run the EU yesterday, when it took over the EU presidency from French President Nicolas Sarkozy after six months of dynamic crisis management.
With its center-right government weak and unstable and the country’s head of state, Czech President Vaclav Klaus, the strongest euro-skeptic in office anywhere in the EU, fears are widespread that Prague might struggle to lead Europe at a time of multiple and fast-moving international crises.
In the first move of the Czech presidency the foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, will go to the Middle East this week to try to mediate in the Gaza crisis, after voicing support for Israel’s onslaught against Hamas.
The run-up to the Czechs’ six months in charge has already been embroiled in rows between Prague and western Europe. Klaus used his Christmas message to attack Sarkozy and the other stronger powers of western Europe.
“They have absolutely no right to wave Europe in our face,” said Klaus, who enjoys a reputation as a brawler — particularly on Europe, one of his pet subjects.
The head of state, who engineered the peaceful break-up of Czechoslovakia and successfully steered the new Czech Republic from communism to capitalism in the 1990s as finance minister and prime minister, cannot stomach Brussels.
The EU is the new Soviet Union, environmentalism is the new communism, climate change is a myth and there is nothing wrong with the international economy that a bit of patience would not fix, Klaus has said. While influential, however, he has little real power as head of state.
Alexandr Vondra, the deputy prime minister in charge of European policy, admits that the challenges are immense and it will be tricky following the presidency of Sarkozy, whose period in charge turned into a mammoth exercise in crisis management.
Vondra, a seasoned diplomat and the brain behind the country’s integration into the EU and NATO over the past decade, will seek to make the most of the presidency by striking deals and mediating between the bigger EU states.
Sarkozy ended his presidency last month with a successful summit that made three big decisions — an EU accord on the world’s first big climate change package, agreement on European fiscal stimulus measures to try to counter recession and a deal with Ireland to force a second referendum on the ill-fated Lisbon Treaty reforming the EU, in return for concessions to Irish sensitivities.
It will fall to the Czechs to manage implementation of these accords and oversee the run-up to European elections in June. Klaus has contemptuously dismissed all three.
“This [Lisbon] treaty must be rewritten somehow or other,” Klaus said. “The current ratifications are no longer valid. A new vote is needed in every country.”