Some European Union presidencies fade quickly from the memory. It is safe to say the Czech Republic’s presidency, ending on June 30, will not be forgotten for quite some time.
One thinks of the art display erected in January at the EU’s headquarters when the Czechs began their six months in charge: Bulgaria was portrayed as a lavatory, France as a country permanently on strike, Germany as a swastika-shaped autobahn network and Romania as a Dracula theme park.
One thinks of the February speech to the European parliament of Vaclav Klaus, Czech head of state. Ever the bad kid on the EU block, he said the assembly’s insistence on the inevitability of European political integration reminded him of the suppression of free thought under central and eastern Europe’s pre-1989 communist leaders.
One thinks of Mr Klaus’s refusal to sign the EU’s Lisbon reform treaty, in defiance of the wishes of all other EU governments and in spite of the Czech parliament’s approval of the treaty in May. One thinks of the extraordinary attack by Mirek Topolanek, the former Czech prime minister, on Barack Obama’s measures to pull the US economy out of recession, seen as a potential “road to hell”.
Finally, one thinks – or perhaps prefers not to think – of Mr Topolanek’s alfresco antics at the Sardinian villa of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s premier.
The Czechs’ EU presidency came under the microscope because it was only the second time a former communist state had held the job since the EU’s eastward expansion of 2004-2007. Slovenia’s presidency passed without incident in the first half of 2008. But Slovenia was fortunate. Financial crisis and recession had yet to strike Europe.
Slovenia was canny, too. It saved its most contentious démarche – its decision to block Croatia’s EU accession talks because of a bilateral maritime border dispute – until after completing its presidency. In this way, Slovenia sidestepped the accusation that narrow national objectives had influenced its six months at the helm, to the detriment of the EU’s broader interests.
By contrast, the Czechs were in difficulty from the earliest days of their presidency for reasons that were, for the most part, not their fault. Israel’s military assault on Gaza, and a dispute between Russia and Ukraine that cut off Russian gas supplies to the EU in mid- winter, brutally exposed the limits of Europe’s ability to cool international conflicts by means of well-intentioned mediation.
“The Czechs didn’t have too much luck in that respect, I’m afraid,” recalls Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, the EU affairs minister of Poland, which is preparing for its own six-month spell in charge in July-to- December 2011.
To a certain extent, the Czechs never emerged from the shadow of their predecessors, the French, whose EU presidency in the second half of 2008 is generally regarded as one of the most dynamic and successful of the past 10 years. Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, locked horns several times with Mr Topolanek over the Middle East, EU state aid rules and protectionism.
In the final resort, though, what sank the Czech Republic’s presidency was domestic political strife. Mr Topolanek’s minority centre-right government was weak from the start, but it hoped for a six- month truce at home so it could make a creditable stab at performing its EU duties. It was not to be. The opposition, aided by Mr Klaus, brought down the government in March, leaving the Czech EU presidency on life support for the second three months of its term.
To be fair, the Czechs notched up some successes. In managing the EU’s response to the financial crisis, they concentrated minds on the need to defend the integrity of the single European market.
Furthermore, they also secured an agreement on investing €200m ($278m, £169m) in the Nabucco pipeline project, a plan to diversify the EU’s energy supplies.
They even secured a deal on reduced value added tax rates for local services, such as restaurants and home repairs, a problem that had defied the best efforts of EU policymakers for many years.
However, the most important lesson from the Czech presidency is that it is fatal to let domestic politics contaminate a government’s conduct of EU business. As one Brussels-based ambassador sums up the Czechs: “Their officials were very good. Their politicians were catastrophic.”
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