No honeymoon period for Czech government


BRUSSELS — Alexandr Vondra, Czech deputy prime minister for European affairs, points out that most new administrations enjoy an informal “100 days” to settle in and get a feel for their new responsibilities. But when the Czech government started its six-month turn as head of the European Union on New Year’s Day, “our presidency did not even get 100 hours to get a comfortable seat behind the steering wheel!”

Indeed, the Czechs were greeted on their first day by the twin crises soon referred to as “Gaza and gas”: While Israel attacked the Gaza Strip in pursuit of Hamas, Russia halted natural gas flow to Ukraine, leaving many EU customers without heat for two cold weeks.

In other words, there were very real crises to deal with, not to mention an underlying crisis of confidence in the Czechs’ ability to handle their position. French President Nicolas Sarkozy spread the view that Prague, the first former Warsaw Pact capital to sit at the EU’s helm, was not organized or committed enough to handle the job.

During his own six-month reign as leader of the EU, Sarkozy made it a point to cast doubt on the Czechs at every turn, going so far as to suggest behind the scenes that he should be allowed to halt the regular rotation and remain in charge.

Vaclav Klaus, the vocally euroskeptic Czech president, was among the Czechs who contributed to the widespread skepticism of the country’s ability to lead the bloc. Klaus refuses to fly the EU flag at his office, and his country is the only member state other than Ireland whose parliament hasn’t yet ratified the critical Lisbon reform treaty.

Given this combination of factors, by December, every press conference with Sarkozy or Czech officials brought at least one question — and usually more — about the Czechs' ability to handle the presidency.

But come Jan. 1, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg dove right in on the Middle East, leading a top-level delegation to Jerusalem and Ramallah to seek a cease-fire. On the gas crisis — though the entire EU leadership was initially reluctant to get involved in what it hoped would be resolved between the two parties — Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek and other Czech ministers were soon constantly in the air, flying between Moscow, Kiev, Brussels and Prague trying to get the taps turned back on.

Now, six weeks into the presidency, Vondra made an appearance in Brussels to offer a gathering of analysts and reporters what he called a “Czech-up” of his country’s performance overseeing the common interests and institutions of its 26 European neighbors.

Comparing the role to driving a powerful new car, Vondra asserted his government has “managed to stay on the road on the first two sharp and slippery turns.”

“Our task now is to keep the pace throughout the race,” he said, “and to assure our fellows that sleeping behind the wheel does not belong to Czech driving habits.”

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso shared that view in a public letter of appreciation to the Czech government Feb. 10. “I want to pay tribute to Prime Minister Topolanek and his team for the excellent work” during the January crises, Barroso wrote. “The Czech Presidency is working with dedication and competence on a whole range of other issues.”

Vondra and other pro-EU forces within the Czech Republic welcomed with relief Wednesday’s passage of the Lisbon Treaty by the lower house of the Czech parliament, a vote that had been delayed twice. Passage by the upper house is still needed, as is signature by the president.

And Vaclav Klaus’s signature is something that can hardly be taken for granted, even if the upper house approves the treaty.

In an appearance Thursday before the European Parliament — with an address that led several MEPs to walk out of the room in protest — Klaus said the treaty would worsen what he called the EU’s “democratic deficit.” He also reprised his earlier comparisons of the European Union to the Soviet Union (though leaving that erstwhile country unnamed) with remarks saying the EU allows no “parliamentary opposition,” meaning “no freedom”, and accusing EU leaders of underestimating the fears of many citizens that “their problems are again decided elsewhere and without them.” Klaus also criticized his own government’s decision to call two extra head-of-state summits during this term to handle the overflowing agenda on economic and foreign affairs.

Yet Vondra and Topolanek have handled this domestic dichotomy the only way they can, by reminding time and again that it is they, and not Klaus — nor Sarkozy — who are in charge of the day-to-day diplomacy on behalf of the bloc.

Topolanek will be present as EU leader on Sunday in Berlin when the European members of the G20 meet to try to craft a unifed approach to the financial crisis. And even here, the Czech prime minister has been compelled to point out that he will meet bilaterally in Berlin with the French president in a continuing attempt to dispel perceptions of French disapproval of the Prague presidency.

Asked how he was personally handling what seems like a stressful reign, Vondra’s renowned sense of humor came to the fore.

“It’s fun — it’s great fun!” he said. And unable to resist a poke at the French president’s reported desire to have held on to the job himself, Vondra added with a laugh, “maybe we will not hand it over…but WE are serious!”

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