Czechs inherit turmoil along with EU presidency
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The New Year marks the beginning of the Czech Republic term for the rotating European Union presidency. The nation will inherit a host of pressing issues to tackle, including the Gaza crisis and the world financial crash.
The Czechs have a tough act to follow when they take the helm of the European Union on Jan. 1 after French President Nicolas Sarkozy's energetic stint.
Facing the worst economic crisis in generations, a stalled process to streamline decision-making, thorny ties with Russia, and June European Parliament elections, many EU leaders say strong leadership now is not a luxury but a necessity.
Some Czechs are still eurosceptic (Report: J.B. Cadier and J. André)
But unlike France, which under Sarkozy launched a string of initiatives, albeit with mixed results, on issues such as the economic crisis and climate change, the Czechs have been far from the forefront of the drive for deeper integration.
Led by a weak, staunchly pro-U.S. minority government, the ex-communist state of 10.4 million has not yet ratified the EU's Lisbon reform treaty, is in no rush to adopt the euro currency and is cautious on any shift of power to Brussels from the national level.
Portrait of Czech President Václav Klaus (Report: J.B. Cadier and J. André)
Add to that the Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, who has made EU-bashing one of his core topics and refuses to hoist the EU flag at Prague Castle, and a picture of scepticism unfolds that pundits say could cause problems when the EU needs them least.
"The fact that he holds these views makes it difficult to run the presidency," said Robin Shepherd, senior fellow for Europe at Chatham House, a London-based think-tank.
"Klaus is not the head of government ... but he is the public face of the Czech Republic."
Klaus's position at home is mostly ceremonial. He does not drive policy and will lead few events under the presidency.
But he is likely to snipe at what he sees as undemocratic attempts to form a European superstate, as he did in a Christmas Eve address when he said politicians like Sarkozy hurt Europe by showing too little respect for individual states' sovereignty.
"I dare say that these people represent the height of anti-Europeanism. They have absolutely no right to wave Europe in front of our face," he told television Z1.
Klaus' big moment will be when he is expected to address European Parliament in February and he may lead an EU-Russia summit in March. Klaus has traditionally had better relations with Moscow than the cabinet, which has angered Russia with its plans to host a U.S. missile defence radar.
Another problem is that the Czechs' main policy driver, centre-right Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, is at risk of incessant no-confidence attacks from a hostile opposition.
But analysts say instead of Klaus, a key figure will be Topolanek's deputy for European Affairs, Alexandr Vondra, who sees the Czechs' role as bringing together the EU "big three" -- France, Germany, and Britain -- rather than driving sweeping initiatives that were the hallmark of Sarkozy's tenure.
"Our strength could be in mediation. When the big three are not on board, you have an opportunity to do that," Vondra said.
Charles Grant, director of the London-based Centre for European Reform think tank, said with those countries taking a lead role on major crises such as the Russia-Georgia conflict and the European Commission on the economy, the Czechs' size or inexperience need not lead to problems.
"There is some apprehension, but most of it revolves around Klaus ... As long as it's really Vondra who calls the shots, rather than Klaus, I think other governments will not be too worried about the Czechs being in the driving seat," he said.
Recent history of the Czech Republic (Report: J.B. Cadier and J. André)
The Czechs have won some praise negotiating compromises. They have mostly not dug in their heels on issues like some EU newcomers and have abstained from veto threats in rows on such issues such as this month's climate package.
On the economy, the Czechs -- who have suffered less than most in western Europe from the global crisis -- will keep a cautious tack, steering away from endorsing any pouring of public funds into the private sector.
"Stimuli packages are important but must be short-term, targeted, focused and within a long-term goal to have structural reform," Vondra said.
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