- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2009

The Czech Republic’s bumpy debut in the European Union presidency has left many Europeans skeptical about the country’s ability to cope with the job and has underlined criticism of the very principle of a rotating presidency.

Divisions within the Czech government and the range of crises facing the region and the world at large have intensified concerns about how well the Prague government will handle the post, which it assumed from France on New Year’s Day and will hold until the end of June.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus, whose post is largely ceremonial, is a longtime and vocal opponent of European integration. He has described his turn as president of the European Council, the executive body of the European Union, as having “no relevance.”

According to Mr. Klaus, Germany, France, Britain and Italy will continue to control Europe anyway.

“Some comments from Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who refused to adorn Czech public buildings with the European colors, are worrying and even shocking for the citizens of other countries,” said Sylvie Goulard, head of the French European Movement, a leading advocacy group on European issues.

Mrs. Goulard also noted the Czech government’s reluctance to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, a document seen by Europhiles as bringing much-needed reform to the 27-member European mammoth.

“However, we shouldn’t lump together all the Czechs,” Mrs. Goulard said. “Some of them are very embarrassed by the attitude of their leaders toward Europe.”

For example, the Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolanek, who holds executive power under the Czech system, supports the Lisbon Treaty and European resolutions on climate change. Yet, his weak position at home, where his government lost the majority in the Senate, leaves him with little clout with which to face the Euro-skepticism of his political party, the conservative Civic Democratic Party.

“It’s more difficult to preside over the EU without national unity, as is the case today in the Czech Republic,” said Guillaume Klossa, head of the think tank EuropaNova and a special adviser during the French presidency of the European Union. “It will be harder for them to be audacious and carry out best the Europeans’ interests.

“They are also lacking the big machinery and administrative power that usually helps Europe’s bigger countries,” he said.

Mr. Klossa also acknowledged the “extraordinarily difficult context” in which the Czech Republic took over the presidency from France, referring to the global recession, the crisis in Gaza and the recent natural-gas war between Russia and Ukraine that deprived many Eastern European countries of heating fuel at the coldest time of the year.

The Czech Republic’s loyalty to the European Union has been debated since the former Soviet satellite state joined the European Union in 2004.

However, Radio Praha, a Czech international broadcasting station, often runs programs in favor of further European integration. It noted that in a recent poll conducted by the European Union, 54 percent of Czechs said they trusted the European Commission, an approval rating higher than in France (45 percent), Germany (43 percent) and Britain (27 percent).

Czech Ambassador to the United States Petr Kolar said the quality of a European presidency does not depend on the size of the country.

“We’re taking our job very seriously,” Mr. Kolar said. “We’re not here to push our agenda, but to build consensus among the 27 members states, and I have no doubt that we will manage that very well.”

The presidency of the European Council rotates every six months among the 27 members based on alphabetical order and an alternation of “old” and “new” member states.

Many specialists criticize the randomness of a system that brings a small and relatively inexperienced new nation to the front line at a time of major challenges.

“Some Czech leaders are currently demonstrating that it would be better to choose European presidents according to their involvement [in continental matters] rather than by alphabetical order,” Mrs. Goulard said.

For Francois Lafond, who heads the Paris bureau of the German Marshall Fund, much of the criticism derives from the success of the just-ended French presidency.

French President “Nicolas Sarkozy raised the bar very high. The European Union had not seen such a dynamic presidency in years,” he said.

“The three ‘Es’ of the Czech Republic’s agenda for the EU presidency - energy, economy and exterior relations - are nevertheless relevant,” Mr. Lafond said.

“We also mustn’t forget that the Czech Republic is also one of the U.S.’s best friends in Europe, which could help strengthening trans-Atlantic cooperation on key issues such as Guantanamo, Iran or Afghanistan.”

Mr. Lafond said the rotating presidency “helps new countries to adopt the European identity and does a great deal to inform European citizens.”

But other European specialists say the system has outlived its usefulness.

“To cope with crisis management, a new important function of the EU presidency, we need a strong leadership,” said Ulrike Guerot, who heads the Berlin Bureau of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“During the crisis between Russia and Georgia last summer, Europeans were relieved to rely on Nicolas Sarkozy’s strong leadership,” she said, advocating the creation of a longer-term “European secretary of state.” That, she said, would “send a clear and audacious signal to the United States and to the world.”

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