The Czech Republic and Europe: uneasy presidency

19 January 2009

An array of global problems is pressing on the European Union in the first weeks of 2009 - from the crisis of the global financial system and a threatened worldwide economic slump to the fallout of the Gaza war and the annual Russia-Ukraine dispute over energy payments. The union's ability to address all these is shadowed by its continuing internal paralysis over planned reforms to the way the EU works. But what makes these priorities even more challenging for the union is that for the six months beginning on 1 January 2009 its presidency is held by the Czech Republic - a country with a weak and divided government and a state president bent on halting and if possible reversing European integration.

John Palmer is a member of the governing board of the European Policy Centre

Among John Palmer's articles in openDemocracy:

"Europe's enlargement problem" (23 May 2006)

"A commonwealth for Europe" (11 October 2006)

"Europe: the square root of no" (20 June 2007)

"Europe's higher ground" (22 October 2007)

"Slovenia at Europe's helm" (18 December 2007)

"Ireland, the Lisbon treaty, and Europe's future" (16 December 2008)It is little wonder then that most of the European Union's twenty-six other member-states are anticipating the conduct of the Czechs' EU presidency with extreme nervousness. This is fuelled too by the experience of the French presidency in the second half of 2008, when the hyperactive Nicholas Sarkozy, set a high if not always successful standard of leadership. The French president can be credited with having helped end the brief war between Georgia and Russia, and laying at least some of the foundations for a coordinated international response to the banking crisis and the looming recession.

A difficult task

Mirek Topolanek, the Czech prime minister, gives a convincing impression of a man who wishes he was somewhere else, at some other time. His most immediate concern has been to block attempts by his president, Vaclav Klaus, to hijack the Czechs' European leadership as part of Klaus's Europhobic campaign.

Topolanek is intimidated by Klaus, to the extent that he sought to prove his own credentials by saying that the Lisbon treaty reforming EU governance was "worse" that the existing Nice treaty. The response to this crass expression of a view that no other EU government takes forced Topolanek into an embarrassing u-turn by saying he would vote for the Lisbon treaty when it finally comes to a vote in the Czech parliament .

The Czech presidency made a similarly unconvincing start to its six-month term in relation to the foreign-policy crisis triggered by Israel's brutal war in Gaza. The Czech foreign ministry's initial reaction justified the Israeli intervention by saying that it was a "defensive war". This line changed within hours when the rest of the EU made known its abhorrence at the massively disproportionate Israeli action which in the days after the assault launched on 27 December 2008 inflicted massive damage and destroyed hundreds of Palestinian lives.

The Czechs backtracked by announcing that moves to upgrade Israel's commercial relationship with the EU would be suspended while the fighting continued. At the same time Prague came under pressure from a growing number of international humanitarian-aid organisations to support action against Israel for alleged war crimes.

There is no comparable misjudgment by the Czechs over the bitter Russia-Ukraine gas-supply crisis, resolved at last with an agreement on 18 January 2009. In fact the Czechs helped broker an agreement which should - with a modicum of goodwill by both main parties to the dispute - have resulted in ensuring Russian supplies to a freezing Bulgaria, Serbia and other regional states.  

Indeed, it must be admitted that the unprecedented range and seriousness of the global problems facing the European Union in early 2009, even the most enlightened and capable presidency might be unequal to the task. The EU, after all, must also depend on cooperation from other major global players - and its intense efforts (together with the United Nations) to end the bloodshed in Gaza have been undermined by the vacuum created by the lengthy transfer from the George W Bush to the Barack Obama presidency in the United States. The determination of the Israeli government to use this "dead time" to pursue its strategic goals also exposes the limits of global governance and international law.

A Europe-wide dilemma

It is also increasingly clear that the global financial and economic crisis is too vast for even the strongest of economic powers to be able to offer a certain way of preventing what looks like being the most serious downturn since 1945. The next few months will show whether the EU is ready to take at least some steps of its own: to reform and strengthen financial regulation, and to subdue the destabilising mechanisms and unaccountable forces in the financial sector that have brought the world close to economic disaster.

This would best be done by strengthening the supranational institutions concerned - including the European Central Bank. But, to judge by past performance, some governments may insist on first attempting a cumbersome and ineffective form of inter-governmental cooperation. This is also the best outcome that is likely to emerge from discussions within the EU about a coordinated macroeconomic strategy to limit the ferocity of the recession and lay the foundations for a sustainable recovery.

The paradox is that this chilling economic crisis could (and should) provide a springboard for the EU to move in stages towards a more comprehensive, and socially and environmentally sustainable, economic model. If this important conjuncture is not recognised by the Czech Republic, it certainly will be by the country which will inherit the EU presidency on 1 July 2009: Sweden. The government in Prague is likely to evade this larger agenda and concentrate merely on trying to avoid making a bad situation even worse.

Meanwhile, the European Union as a whole awaits signals from Barack Obama's presidency as to how far the choice of a scientifically literate environmental team will be followed by cooperative engagement in the search for a global agreement regulating carbon-emissions to follow the Kyoto protocol. More generally, there are mixed expectations regarding EU-US foreign-policy relations: support for the new president's desire to see an accelerated withdrawal from Iraq, but scepticism from most EU states (Britain apart) about Washington's belief that a new and enhanced military offensive in Afghanistan will produce anything constructive.

A political chance

The Czech presidency will still be in office when the direct elections to the European parliament take place on 4-7 June 2009. The political parties represented in the parliament are desperate this time round to generate greater voter participation. The very seriousness of the issues facing the EU member-states may itself help create a greater sense than in the past that the European public has the opportunity in the election to make real and influential political choices.

It is unfortunate then that the Irish rejection of the Lisbon treaty on 12 June 2008 has made it more difficult for European political parties to demonstrate the increasingly important role they have come to play in EU decision-making. If the Lisbon treaty had been in force in June 2009, for example, the European political parties could have asked voters to choose their preferred candidate to become the next president of the European commission. Indeed, this system does not really require a treaty ratification; even now, a more self-confident EU presidency than the Czech Republic's is likely to prove might - even without the treaty - have invited member-states to adopt it (see "Ireland, the Lisbon treaty, and Europe's future", 16 December 2008). 

The second Lisbon treaty referendum in Ireland will take place in autumn 2009, once final agreement has been reached on a range of texts clarifying some of the issues which were exploited by Eurosceptics in the 2008 campaign. These texts will underline that nothing in the treaty requires Ireland to accept conscription into a European army, to give up power to fix its domestic taxation or to accept an obligation to make abortion or prostitution legal. In addition, the European council has agreed not to proceed at present with the Nice treaty (2001-02) provision to reduce the size of the European commission; this - in theory - could have deprived individual states (including Ireland) of being able in future to claim to have at least one commissioner of "their own".

In this difficult period, Ireland is  - like all the other EU states - wrestling with its own domestic economic and political demons. There is not much the Czechs' European presidency can do to help in Ireland - beyond, perhaps, discouraging a return visit to Ireland by the Czech Republic's own head of state, Vaclav Klaus. His official visit to Dublin in November 2008 was notable for his parleys with rightwing campaigners opposed to the Lisbon treaty. The tension between what the European Union needs and what the Czech Republic's leadership offers makes even more testing the severe challenges of the coming months.


openDemocracy writers track the European Union's politics: 

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