Czech Life Support Misery to End: An Assessment of the Czechs' EU Presidency

Article excerpt

Some European Union presidencies fade quickly from the memory. It is safe to say that 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 the Obama administration'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 an ex-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 demarche--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.

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 midwinter, brutally exposed the limits of Europe's ability to cool international conflicts by means of well-intentioned mediation. …