The Czech EU presidency tarnished by the fall of the government midway through the tenure is drawing to a close as the Czechs pass the baton to the Swedes on Wednesday.
Czech officials and many in the EU are likely to breathe a sigh of relief after the troubled six-month tenure is over.
“We are waiting for the Swedish presidency impatiently, but we will willingly stand by the Czechs for the few days,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said recently.
Former Czech prime minister Mirek Topolanek, whose center-right Cabinet was toppled in a no-confidence motion the at the end of March, has described the presidency as a “wasted opportunity.”
He added the fall of his government had eroded the influence of the European executive and given a boost to those criticizing the principle of the revolving presidency and the ability of small countries to take on the helm.
Topolanek had to quell doubts as soon as he took the presidency over from hyperactive French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Jan. 1.
“Our presidency has had its critics — indeed, it had some even before it began,” Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kohout recently wrote in a forum on the european.voice.com Web site.
“We followed a presidency that was high-profile throughout and extended, some say, beyond its term of office,” he said. The Czechs had to tackle several hot issues from the start as the economic crisis began to bite, Israel attacked Gaza and Russia closed the gas taps for Ukraine and hence for several EU countries amid severe winter weather.
They failed to impress on the Israeli front but negotiated a political deal on the gas supplies and kept promoting austerity as a way to combat the economic crisis throughout their tenure.
Passions flared when Topolanek likened the generous US measures against the economic crisis to “a road to hell,” in stark contrast to the polite tone used in Brussels.
The statement raised eyebrows throughout the world, but the Czechs’ cautious stance also helped to quell the desires of countries such as France to protect themselves by blowing up the already ballooning fiscal deficits.
“Are we, like others new to the role, on a learning curve? Yes. Do we ask hard questions that some might prefer to duck? Yes. Are we the first presidency to have faced a political crisis at home? No,” Kohout wrote.
If Europe was concerned about the Czech presidency before it even started, the biggest scare was the country’s euroskeptic president, Vaclav Klaus, known for his staunch opposition to the EU’s reforming Lisbon Treaty.
But despite his often fiery statements against all things European, the president’s worst excess was probably the likening of European integration to the communist dictatorship before the European Parliament in February.
Throughout most of the presidency, Klaus was outshadowed by Topolanek who also intervened to help push the Lisbon Treaty through both houses of parliament during the presidency, helping to unblock the ratification of the text.
In his assessment of the Czech presidency, a senior Belgian diplomat said it was “the most catastrophic one the EU has ever had … a flop, a disaster.”
“We are counting on the Swedes to take things in their hands again,” another European diplomat said.