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Commission head Barroso supports country despite foreign observers' doubts

On Jan. 1, the Czech Republic takes the reins of the presidency of the European Union from France. Despite previous anxiety expressed by European media and officials, high-level EU politicians including European Commission President José Barroso believe that the country's six-month tenure as EU manager will be a success.

During its presidency, the Czech Republic will be motivated by the fact that it faces the task for the first time in its history and will want to show its ability to cope with the prestigious task. "You never have the second opportunity to create the first good impression," Barroso said.

Political analysts agree that many of the reservations voiced in other EU countries over the Czech Republic's lack of experience are blown out of proportion. According to Vít Beneš, a fellow researcher at the Institute of International Relations, the Cabinet has been preparing for the presidency diligently for many months in cooperation with predecessor France and successor Sweden, and is ready for the task ahead.

The main concern, said Beneš, is that the Czechs may get bogged down by their own past experiences when formulating new EU policies.

He added that the country should not concentrate so much on the know-how gained from its own history, such as the post-1989 transformation from central planning to a free market economy, diplomatic experience with Russia or planning the celebration of its fifth EU accession anniversary, but instead deal with issues that need immediate attention in a professional manner.

"Czechs have a tendency to live in the past and must learn to avoid it if the presidency is to be successful," Beneš said.

According to Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Alexandr Vondra, the country is well aware of its obligations. After more than a year of preparations, Vondra presented a working list of the Czech Republic's priorities for the presidency at a late-December meeting with journalists. These can be summed up by "the three Es," Vondra said: economy, energy and Europe in the world.

In the economic sphere, the Czech presidency would like to concentrate on mending problems related to the financial crisis and approving all relevant legislative measures before the European Parliament elections in June. To minimize the fallout of the crisis, Vondra presented one possible solution specific to the Czech experience.

Breaking from other member states' push for increased government intervention, Vondra stated that he would like to model future EU policies on the Czech economy, which has been very conservative in its policies since the early 20th century, and even during communism. "We've never had hyperinflation or huge budget deficits," he said, adding that minimizing government intervention is the most cautious way out of the financial crisis.

Besides further debate about the EU's ambitious Climate and Energy package, which seeks to drastically cut carbon emissions, the Czech Republic would also like to oversee a diversification of energy sources. Vondra said that new oil pipelines together with a rational approach to energy saving will be key in ensuring the EU's future security.

In the foreign relations arena, the Czech presidency has two main geopolitical aims. In the east, it will have to lead renewed talks with Russia over sensitive issues such as trade and energy cooperation and the possible future EU accession of countries such as Ukraine, seen by Russia as its historic sphere of influence. In the west, the Czechs will seek to establish relations with the new administration of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, whose planned trip to Europe this spring will be a good opportunity to set up and develop a comprehensive agenda, Vondra said.

Unified stance

In recent months, the foreign press has often criticized President Václav Klaus for his dismissive comments and attitude toward the EU, but Barroso said that he does not fear that the Czech presidency will be weakened by Klaus' views.

"I don't think it is so relevant," he said. "I am more interested in the substance and concrete results of the presidency."

Barroso also expressed hopes that Czech politicians - including Klaus - will be able to put aside their differences and work together for the good of the country and the entire EU during the presidency.

Beneš agreed with Barroso that Klaus' role in the Czech Republic has been blown out of proportion by international media and EU politicians, especially in countries such as France. As a state with a presidential system, France tends to view Klaus as the EU's greatest menace. However, according to the Czech Constitution, Klaus' role is more ceremonial than governmental, reminds Beneš.

Vondra also indicated that Klaus will only play a marginal role during the presidency, hosting several Prague meetings and chairing some summits if the situation calls for it. For example, "Klaus can play a role in the EU-Russia summit to be held in Siberia, because of his more friendly approach to Russia," Vondra said.

Summing up the government preparations and the tasks ahead, Vondra was careful to de-emphasize overly ambitious hopes and expectations. Although he realizes that the Czech presidency will have to deal with critical issues such as the global financial crisis, it its unlikely that the country will leave a lasting mark on the EU, he said.

When comparing the Czech presidency with that of the French, Vondra stressed that the Czech Republic is a midsize country. Rather than leading the EU's 27 states, its goal will be moderation and implementation of solutions agreed upon by everyone, he said.

In accord with Vondra's assessment, Beneš said the main priority of the presidency will be effective management, and expressed hopes that the presidency will leave its mark on the Czech Republic.

The country, its citizens and politicians could "come of age" and accept their role within the European Union, which has often been demonized by domestic politicians and used as a scarecrow by populists, Beneš said, adding that the presidency will bring Brussels to Prague, giving locals an unprecedented opportunity to assess its inner workings.

"Hopefully, everyone will realize that we are all a part of Brussels and its decision making process," he said.

Ondřej Bouda
The Prague Post
Nick: Charlie, 5.1.2009 02:11:10
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