Czechs take helm of EU presidency

Country faces task of executing stimulus package

By Karel Janicek
Associated Press / January 2, 2009
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PRAGUE - A weak government. A Euro-skeptic president. Parliament in stalemate over an EU reform treaty. The Czech Republic does not look ideally suited to assume leadership of the European Union.

Nevertheless, the Czechs assumed the bloc's six-month rotating presidency yesterday, taking it away from EU heavyweight France, whose President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken vigorous action on tackling Europe's economic woes.

The Czech Republic, only the second post-communist EU newcomer to take the bloc's helm, will face the daunting task of implementing a $258 billion European economic stimulus package approved by EU leaders under the French presidency.

The nation of about 10 million people bordering Germany and Poland is also the last EU member to vote on the stalled Lisbon Treaty, a blueprint for reforming the EU that supporters say is essential for it to work effectively.

The treaty has been on hold since Irish voters rejected it in June. The Czech Parliament postponed its vote after the Irish rebuff, and has yet to reschedule a ballot even though Ireland has agreed to hold a new referendum.

The most prominent Czech critic of the treaty is the nation's president, Vaclav Klaus, who openly says "a well functioning, bureaucratic EU is not my goal."

Klaus has even said he won't allow the EU flag to fly over Prague Castle, his official seat, during the Czech presidency because the country "is not an EU province."

His views are shared by some lawmakers from the conservative Civic Democratic Party of Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek.

Topolanek said he wants Parliament to ratify the treaty. But his party is threatening to block ratification unless lawmakers first approve a deal allowing the United States to base part of a missile defense system on Czech soil.

The governing coalition does not have a majority in Parliament's lower house and the opposition fiercely rejects the missile defense plan.

Opposition leaders threaten a no-confidence vote if the coalition fails to approve the EU charter by next month.

The Czech minister for European affairs, Alexandr Vondra, said political infighting will not affect the country's ability to effectively lead the bloc. "We are rational people. So don't expect any kind of a mess here."

A staunch US ally, the Czech Republic has set ties with the new US administration high on its foreign policy agenda; it hopes to invite Barack Obama to Prague for his first visit to Europe as president.

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