By Ted Reinert
The Czech Republic took over the European Union's six-month rotating presidency on New Year's Day amid substantial apprehension across the continent. While Nicolas Sarkozy used the job to fill an American leadership gap during the outbreak of the world financial crisis, the presidency has shifted to an outlier of sorts: a country that does not use the euro, one of the two in the 27-nation bloc which has not approved the Lisbon Treaty, with a fiery Euroskeptic president, at a time when an uneven economic downturn offers the EU its greatest challenge in a decade. And additional tests did not wait long to pop up. In the first week of 2009, Israeli ground troops invaded Gaza and all Russian gas headed for Europe via Ukraine was cut off.
Vaclav Klaus, who holds the largely ceremonial presidency of the Czech Republic, is a fan of Margaret Thatcher and a disputer of global warming who wrote a book titled Blue Planet in Green Chains. Klaus is an opponent of the stalled Lisbon Treaty and will not hoist an EU flag over Prague Castle, but on New Year's Day he urged European citizens to vote in the upcoming European Parliament elections to help create a more democratic Europe. "We want to help the EU become a truly democratic space where political decision-making is as close to citizens as possible, where politicians must be responsible to citizens and where each politician can be controlled efficiently," Klaus said.
The Czechs have already had to cope with one mini-scandal in their presidency. The EU presidency spokesman for Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, Jiri Frantisek Potuznik, had to apologize for calling Israel's ground assault "more defensive than offensive" when Moammar Qaddafi's influential son Seif al-Islam warned of Libya cutting off relations with Prague over the "insult to Palestinian martyrs."
To add to that, Nicolas Sarkozy will not stop trying to lead Europe (although perhaps the blue lighting and ring of stars will come down from the Eiffel Tower.) He led a peace delegation to the Middle East this week at the same time that his own foreign minister Bernard Kouchner and other European diplomats accompanied Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg on the official EU delegation to try to broker a cease-fire. Such a double delegation is hardly ideal and sends a signal that Sarkozy lacks confidence in the EU mission. There are two world leaders who might be able to keep Israel from acting as it sees fit in Gaza, and they are the Presidents of the United States and of Egypt, not the President of France.
The other early test for the Czech presidency is closer to home. The country and its Eastern European neighbors, such as Poland, Austria, Romania, and Bulgaria, are those most affected by Gazprom cutting off gas to and through Ukraine, except for Ukraine itself. The European Commission has called the cutoff "completely unacceptable." With Europe reluctant to side against Russia or Ukraine, the dispute between Gazprom and Ukraine's gas utility Naftogaz is likely to worsen Europe's relations and business confidence with both countries.
The Czech Republic is the second of the nations that joined the bloc in 2004 or later to take over the job. Its busy first week has shown a willingness to engage in the Middle East and more reluctance to get involved in the Russia-Ukraine dispute. But it is the economy that will be its greatest challenge over the next six months, along with Sarkozy's ego. The Czechs will often be overshadowed by the French president, Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown as the big economies try to cope with the recession, but we can probably expect a few fireworks along the way.
Ted Reinert is a graduate student in the European Studies program at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Bologna Center in Italy.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.