PRAGUE — The Czech Republic that U.S. President Barack Obama will visit today for a one-day summit with the 27 leaders of the European Union countries has undergone dramatic political change in recent weeks. Less than two weeks ago, the Czech government collapsed in a vote of no confidence, leading to uncertainty about the details of Obama's visit.
Mirek Topolanek still remains the prime minister — for now — and he will host the summit. But what, if any, sort of meeting he'll have with Obama is unclear.
Obama arrives today, and is due to give a speech on non-proliferation — in which he will reportedly make a dramatic call for a nuclear-free world — Sunday morning. Shortly thereafter he will attend a meeting with EU leaders.
The government collapse prompted a dwindling of excitement about today's visit, according to Martin Ehl, foreign editor of the country's leading business newspaper, Hospadarsky noviny. Previously, there was palpable anticipation here about the opportunity to welcome the popular U.S. president on behalf of the EU — the Czech Republic is currently hosting the rotating presidency of the EU — and about the prime minister's planned sit-down with Obama for a bilateral tete-a-tete.
But now, the summit has become a bittersweet event for Czechs — with enthusiasm tinged by thoughts of what might have been.
“The main impact is that there is no official U.S.-Czech meeting about topics which we are interested in,” Ehl said. “This government is taken less seriously than a government that has a clear mandate.”
The itinerary — which, as Ehl lamented, seems to change by the day — suggests Obama will informally meet both Prime Minister Topolanek and President Vaclav Klaus at Prague Castle, the seat of the president, after Obama delivers his speech, which will take place in the square in front of the castle.
The uncertainty — which was brought on by the prime minister being reduced to the role of government caretaker — has left officials like spokeswoman Michaela Jelinkova in the position of trying to put a positive spin on the drama.
“It's an exceptional opportunity for all of the EU to see and speak with Mr. Obama about the most current and pressing issues,” she said. Among the issues to be discussed at the summit are energy security, climate change, the Middle East and Afghanistan, she said.
And even though the recently concluded G20 meeting in London ended with an agreement for a $1 trillion stimulus package, Jelinkova said she expects the global economy will also be a topic of discussion in Prague.
At the start of the year Europeans were reminded, yet again, of their dependence on oil and gas deliveries from Russia. Key pipelines transit through the Ukraine — but, not for the first time, the flow of gas was interrupted, with Russia and Ukraine each laying blame on the other. Energy security had been a priority for the Czech EU presidency, which ends June 30, when Sweden takes over.
The climate change discussion is taking on increased urgency — not just because some leading scientists now say we really only have until 2030 to avoid irreversible warming — but also because countries are now looking to complete a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol at a climate change summit in Copenhagen in December.
Former President George W. Bush provoked European ire long before the Iraq war by famously rejecting the Kyoto Protocol. The protocol, which called on countries to reduce their emissions of heat-trapping gases like carbon monoxide, is set to expire in 2012 — hence the need for a new agreement.
Obama's speech could end up being the most significant event of his visit, especially if he does actually call for the elimination of nuclear weapons. It is imbued with added significance because it will be the only speech he will make during his swing through Europe that is open to the public. Officials estimate 30,000 people could attend. Security will be predictably tight, with thousands of additional police on duty.
The prospects of a nuclear-free world will undoubtedly be applauded by many, but for Ehl, the newspaper editor, there is concern that the country will again be reduced to a patch of land sitting — vulnerable — between greater powers.
“This will be a major global speech, not just for Czech Republic, but we are afraid that he will be too close to Russia,” Ehl said. “Afraid is maybe too strong an expression, but there might be some fear that we will again be some space in between.”
For more than two years Prime Minister Topolanek's right-of-center government has sought to build closer ties with Washington by pursuing an agreement to house a radar base, as part of the U.S.-planned missile defense deployment in Europe. An accompanying interceptor base would be built in Poland.
“We are a bit afraid that (Obama) will be much more open towards Russia than his predecessor,” Ehl continued. “And we are afraid that the Czech-U.S. relations ... will become a victim of this new relationship between the U.S. and Russia.”
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