With the slogan "Europe without barriers," the Czech European Union presidency commenced on the first of January and will continue through the end of June 2009. This slogan and the agenda it carries were, however, born before the world economic crisis. Now, in its midst, the crisis will without a doubt transform the political context of the Czech presidency.
As the new leaders of the EU, it is likely that the Czechs will have to rely on improvisation as the daily array of new challenges crop up out of this present sickly state of international affairs. The question remains, how will the Czech Republic deal with these challenges?
ORGANIZATION VERSUS POLITICS
The current government began preparing for the presidency fairly late due to the extreme polarization of Czech politics. Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek de facto dismissed the entire team in charge of the preparations for the presidency. Formed by the previous government, this team was led by Social Democrats. While most of the former presiding countries began to prepare three years in advance, the Czech Republic spent only a year and a half.
Even so, we expect that the Czechs will find reasonable success in the organizational aspect of the presidency. This is mainly because we have traditionally excelled at improvisation. It is possible, however, that some of the larger EU states may be skeptical about the organizational abilities of a former Soviet satellite. If such skepticism takes root, the direction taken in the next six months may fall under the joint auspices of "Old Europe" and the Czech presidency.
The political aspects of the presidency are more problematic for the Czech Republic. The current crisis has created what would be a difficult situation for any member of the EU to provide leadership. But a country that is relatively new to the EU and previously belonged to the Soviet bloc will have it even harder.
Unfortunately, this is not the end of Czech handicaps. Upon taking office, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) adopted strong Euro-skeptic rhetoric. The ODS's stance towards Europe had been a major source of differentiation between their own party and the governing Social Democratic Party (CSSD). To immediately change their rhetoric after eight years in opposition would have been difficult. As such, the Czechs dug themselves a deep hole out of which it will now be difficult to climb.
On the other hand, their inability in 2007 to replace their Euro-skepticism with pragmatism led the rest of Europe to view the Czech Republic as an ally of problematic Poland, who was at that time governed by the Kaczynski brothers. This behavior gave the Czech Republic a certain image which still persists today, despite the fact that the ODS and government amended their attitude towards the EU in 2008.
The ODS's slow transition towards a more pragmatic attitude was related to the party's inner situation. For many years, the party's ideology has been formed by Vaclav Klaus who retained a relatively strong influence on party politics even after he ceased to be the party leader in 2002. When Mirek Topolanek became the new party leader in 2006, he hesitated to draw a connection between popular support for the party and support for Klaus.
Thus, the ODS wrestled for some years in this politically schizophrenic situation. Public opinion polls repeatedly showed that ODS voters were predominantly pro-European. But the post-Klausean leadership--perhaps fearing conflict with Klaus--stuck to the Euro-skeptic line. Perhaps this schizophrenia will come to an end after Klaus's theatrical departure from honorary party leader at the ODS rally in December 2008. In any case, it will take some time for the party to emancipate itself from old ideological structures.
THE LISBON TREATY
A significant handicap in the political dimension of the Czech presidency has become--rather …