Monday

26th Feb 2024

Czech presidency limps off EU stage

The Czech republic in the past six months helped to end a severe EU gas crisis and to ease Ireland's Lisbon treaty problem. But its cack-handed diplomacy and internal battles risk it going down as "the worst EU presidency in history."

With hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians and Slovaks left without heat in a freezing January, the then Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek flew to Kiev and Moscow to broker talks and negotiate the deployment of EU monitors at pumping stations.

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  • Mr Topolanek (l) at the EU-US summit in Prague (Photo: eu2009.cz)

The mission - recalling French President Nicolas Sarkozy's sortie during the 2008 Georgia war - is widely credited as leading Russia to switch the gas back on 10 days later.

Mr Topolanek clinched his success without the support of the French-influenced EU establishment: European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso declined Czech requests to come along.

In May, Prague's Eastern Partnership summit launched a major effort to pull six post-Soviet states out of Russia's "sphere of influence."

The summit was marked by the absence of the Russia-friendly French leader. But the EU27 plus six countries signed a pledge to "accelerate political association," in a coup that could become Prague's main legacy, if upcoming EU presidencies put the policy into play.

The Franco-Czech antagonism characterised the Czech republic's EU chairmanship. Russia aside, Mr Topolanek's attachment to George W. Bush-era free market principles clashed with Mr Sarkozy's protectionist bent.

Paris at every turn pushed the line that a small, "new" EU state is unfit to lead the union in a time of crisis. But Mr Topolanek gave as good as he got in the rounds of verbal pugilism.

"Nobody has held Mr Sarkozy on a leash as I did," he told Czech daily Lidove Noviny after the EU summit in June.

Mr Topolanek's successor, statistician-turned-caretaker Prime Minister Jan Fischer, at the June meeting choreographed an EU agreement to attach guarantees on Irish neutrality and anti-abortion laws to the Lisbon treaty.

The accord, which paves the way for a Yes vote in Ireland's second Lisbon referendum, came despite Czech President Vaclav Klaus' aggressive opposition. "Mr Fischer has done his work very well," Mr Sarkozy said.

At a technical level, the Czech presidency's 1,650 or so officials oversaw 84 new pieces of EU legislation in areas including financial regulation, visa policy and air transport. It chaired 2,400 meetings of EU diplomats and 38 meetings of EU government ministers.

Its Brussels sculptural installation, Entropa, caused a diplomatic incident with Bulgaria after depicting the country as a toilet. But the much-loved work brought to life an otherwise dull tradition of politically-correct, EU "art."

Prague defenestration

The biggest stain on the Czech presidency's reputation - the Vaclav Klaus-engineered fall of Mr Topolanek's government in mid-mandate after a vote of no confidence - is not without precedent. A similar collapse struck the Italian EU presidency in 1996.

But the Czech fiasco left the European Union politically headless for three months and swept away Prague's best men - Europe minister Alexandr Vondra and foreign minister Karl Schwarzenberg.

The timing was painful for national pride. With the world's attention turned to the Czech capital for an EU-US summit one week later, TV viewers from San Fransisco to Sydney pondered the spectacle of the newly-impotent Mr Topolanek standing next to US leader Barack Obama.

Mr Topolanek's scrappy rhetorical style made the meeting even more awkward. Speaking to the EU parliament a few days earlier, the Czech leader insulted his guest by calling Mr Obama's economic stimulus plan a "road to hell."

The Czech EU chairmanship also gave an international platform to the country's biggest villain in EU terms, the eurosceptic and even more undiplomatic Mr Klaus.

In an address to the EU parliament in February, the Czech president compared Brussels to the Soviet Union, prompting a walkout by MEPs. At an EU-Japan climate change summit in May, he said there is no human impact on global warming.

'Main feeling is shame'

"My main feeling about the presidency is probably shame," Entropa artist David Cerny told EUobserver.

Meanwhile, away from the world stage, Czech officials' preponderance for gaffes and errors quietly eroded Prague's credibility with press and EU officials.

Mr Topolanek's badly-informed spokesman, Jiri Potuznik, in January called Israel's attack on Gaza, which cost the lives of over 900 civilians, a "defensive act," before retracting his words hours later as a "youthful mistake."

A typical press phone-call to the presidency's top spokesman saw him shuffle around the corridors of government offices in Prague with his mobile phone switched on, firing questions to colleagues in Czech before finally declaring "I'll have to call you back on that."

Comedy of errors

Presidency officials at the US summit in Prague left the passport numbers and travel details of over 200 delegates, including the Finnish leader, on a public computer.

Back in Brussels, EU officals said Czech diplomats often declined to consult with European colleagues before launching new initiatives parachuted in from Prague.

Czech "Reflection Papers" on complex foreign affairs issues were noted for being excessively brief and free of insight. Its organisation of everyday meetings was described as "chaotic" by several EU staff.

"Plenty of people wanted the Czech presidency to fail," one EU official said, referring to France's anti-Czech manoeuvres. "In the corridors of the European Commission and in the cafeterias of the Council [the EU member states' secretariat] it's already being talked about as the worst EU presidency in history."

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