Under the motto 'A Europe without barriers', the Czech Republic assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the EU from France on 1 January 2009. The country will have to deal with complex European and domestic problems, including the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by the Czech parliament.

Overview

From 1 January to 30 June 2009, the Czech Republic will hold the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, organising and chairing EU summits (European Councils) and meetings of the bloc's Council of Ministers. The Czech government has already announced the motto of its presidency, 'A Europe without barriers' (EurActiv 14/11/08).

Issues

Three Es: Economy, energy and external relations 

The Czech Presidency priorities were outlined in broad terms by the country's Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek as "the 3 E's": economyenergy  and external relations  (EurActiv 14/11/08). 

The three priorities, along with a detailed work programme, were officially presented in detail by the prime minister on 6 January 2009 (EurActiv 07/01/09). 

The priorities were originally due to be presented in December, but EU diplomatic sources said Czech decision-makers would first need to know the outcome of negotiations on the climate change package (which proved successful). Perhaps more importantly, Prague may have been waiting to hear proposals by Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen on how to proceed after the failed Irish Lisbon Treaty referendum, which he indeed presented at the 11-12 December EU summit (EurActiv 12/12/08).

In a message on the presidency website, Topolánek explains that the Czechs' economic ambitions are "to increase Europe's competitiveness and to enhance consumer confidence, but also the confidence of small and medium-sized enterprises in the market economy". Furthermore, the government intends "to deal with the financial crisis in an effective and reasonable way, to carry on liberal reforms of the budget and EU policies, particularly the Common Agricultural Policy, and, last but not least, to promote employment," he continues.

Boosting economic recovery

Outlining the three major topics it intends to address, the presidency cites the recovery of financial markets and discussions about better regulation, coping with the decline in economic growth and preparing the EU for international debates on reforming the global financial architecture.

Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra, responsible for EU affairs, said the most important events on the economic agenda would be the spring European Council on 19-20 March and the G20 summit in London in April. "The European Council will prepare the common position of the EU for this summit," Vondra said.

The Czech Republic will also be reviving the internal market project by seeking to remove the remaining barriers to free movement of labour as a means of responding to the economic crisis, which is unlikely to go down well with some Western EU countries. The UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Belgium recently opted to keep their labour markets closed to Bulgarians and Romanians for a second period of three years, citing the economic downturn as the main reason for their decision.

Improving energy security

Energy security tops the agenda amid an ongoing gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine. The Czech Republic is strongly in favour of developing a European strategy for better energy security, and more generally, a common energy policy. It intends to pursue greater territorial diversification of energy suppliers and a wider range of utilised sources, in an attempt to reduce the EU's energy dependency while promoting a unified internal energy market.

On external energy relations, the Czechs will focus on Russia, Ukraine and the Caspian region, stating the necessity to "address all aspects of Russia's role as the supplier of energy to EU markets".

In line with the work of the French EU Presidency, Prague says it will continue to pay attention to the substitution of fossil fuels with renewable energies and making Europe less energy intensive via efficiency measures.

'New beginning' for EU-US relationship

On external relations, the presidency's main emphasis will be on a "new beginning" for EU-US relations, with US President-elect Barack Obama assuming office on 20 January 2009. The Czech Republic wants to build upon its excellent relations with the US and lead the Union into a new era of a more balanced and multilateral approach to global challenges, by cooperating in areas such as multilateralism, the Middle East peace process, Afghanistan/Pakistan and relations with Russia.

Dialogue with Russia will continue, with an EU-Russia summit to be held in May with a view to negotiating a new partnership with Moscow and securing energy supply to the EU. Prague will also place special emphasis on boosting its policy in an easterly direction by inaugurating the Eastern Partnership. It also intends to hold a 'Southern Corridor Summit' on energy to start a dialogue with transit countries in the Caspian region.

Significantly, enlargement did not feature as a '4th E'. But Prime Minister Topolánek has said that a "priority of the same importance for us is the openness and further enlargement of the EU". The Czech Republic is pushing for significant advances in the Western Balkan countries' bid to join the Union, especially regarding Croatia. At the same time, its approach to Turkey will be more cautious. Nevertheless, Prague describes Ankara as a "strategic ally of the EU". An EU-Balkans summit should take place under the Czech EU Presidency, Topolánek announced.

Meanwhile, a conference entitled 'EU enlargement: Five years on' will be held in Prague on 1-2 March to mark the anniversary of the accession of the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Cyprus and Malta to the bloc on 1 May 2004. Prague, and indeed the EU as a whole, would like to convey the message that the latest round of EU enlargement, sometimes also referred to as the "reunification of Europe", was a major and an historic success.

Significantly, Topolánek did not mention EU-Russia relations while outlining his government's presidency priorities. The Czech Republic is among those EU countries with a tendency to see this summer's Georgia crisis primarily as an example of the Russian imperial policy toward its neighbours. Such views are shared by Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Sweden and the UK. 

Commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and hailing lessons learned since, is another ambition of the Czech presidency. A conference entitled 'Twenty years on: The memory of Nazism and Communism' will be held on 22-23 June. Moreover, a conference on Holocaust-era assets will take place between 26-30 June in the Czech capital.

Trio of presidencies 

The Czech Republic is actively involved in the 'EU trio' format, which aims to bring more coherence and longer-term planning to the EU policy agenda by taking stock of the experience of older EU members. 

In the spring of 2006, EU countries decided to switch to an 18-month work programme. The first such programme was drawn up jointly by Germany, Portugal and Slovenia. France, the current EU presidency holder, came next, together with the Czech Republic and Sweden. Their common programme runs from July 2008 until the end of December 2009. The next 'trio', due to start work in January 2010, will include Spain, Belgium and Hungary. 

The current trio's programme was presented in the European Parliament on 2 September (EurActiv 03/09/08). 

Strengthening the role of Europe is a primary objective of the current French and the future Czech and Swedish Presidencies, their representatives stated. French Secretary of State for European Affairs Jean-Pierre Jouyet described ensuring the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty as a priority for all three presidencies. In the meantime, France, the Czech Republic and Sweden are determined to ensure the continuity of European policies. Jouyet hinted that he expected the Lisbon Treaty to enter into force during the Swedish Presidency. 

Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra, responsible for EU affairs, was challenged on that occasion by questions about his country's determination to ratify the Lisbon Treaty. The Czech Deputy PM explained that the Lisbon Treaty was currently being considered by the Czech Constitutional Court. In the meantime, the court cleared the way for its ratification by the parliament (EurActiv 26/11/08), but deputies' final vote has since been postponed until 2009 (EurActiv 10/12/08). As final approval requires a three-fifths majority in both chambers of parliament, the opposition is expected to ask for trade-offs on other issues, including hosting a US radar as part of the controversial missile defence system. 

Doubts about the Czech Presidency 

Certain activities of the Czech president, the highest ranking eurosceptic in the EU, are also a cause for acrimony in Brussels. His recent visit to Ireland and his meetings with prominent Irish 'No to Lisbon' campaigner Declan Ganley and other Eurosceptics from across Europe, notwithstanding numerous controversial statements, have prompted many politicians to raise doubts about the suitability and capacity of the Czech Republic to lead the Union. 

Austrian Socialist MEP Hannes Swoboda described the Czech president's meetings in Ireland as "scandalous," labelling events there as the "worst possible start" for the Czech Republic's six-month stewardship of the EU. 

However, it remains to be seen what actual impact the Klaus visit to Ireland will have. The Czech president enjoys limited political power, and it is not thought likely in EU circles that the controversial Ireland visit will affect plans already underway in Prague and Brussels. 

Another concern is that the Czech government has been weakened by recent local elections, which changed tha balance in the Czech senate (EurActiv 23/10/08). Topolánek's government, which comprises his Civic Democratic Party (ODS), the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) and the Greens (SZ), does not have a majority in Parliament and relies on a dozen independent MPs. Last October, Topolánek's administration survived its fourth vote of no confidence since taking office in 2007. 96 MPs voted against the government and 97 in favour. 101 votes are needed to topple the government. 

A third of the 81 senate seats are up for election every two years in the Czech Republic, and Topolánek's ODS won just three of the 26 seats that were up for grabs in the October elections. It still has 35 seats, but lost its majority of 41, while the opposition Social Democrats now have 29, up from just six before the polls. 

The Czech press wrote that Topolánek's post of prime minister was under threat and that the country may face early elections, to be held together with European elections in June 2009. This would be very bad news, as the Czech government would be forced to lead the EU and fight for its own political future at the same time. 

Presidency swap? 

A German conservative MEP even came up with the strange idea that Prague and Stockholm might swap their presidencies, a suggestion which was immediately rejected by both sides (EurActiv 30/10/08). 

"I honestly have doubts that the Czechs will be able to solve their problems in the coming weeks," Ingo Friedrich told EurActiv. 

French appetites? 

The very active French Presidency is also suspected of trying to play a leading role even after 1 January 2009. Czech President Vaclav Klaus is himself among those who have accused France of planning to "siphon" the Czech EU Presidency in the first half of 2009 (EurActiv 27/10/08). According to press reports, the French have already indicated  that they expect to retain a leading role, at least in the recently established Mediterranean Union (EurActiv 14/07/08). 

At a more official level, Sarkozy has stated that continuity will be necessary to deal with the Georgia crisis. France has put much effort into the aftermath of the war and it is widely believed that the EU's momentum would be lost if Paris were not to remain a major player in the region after January 2009. 

Positions

EU business association Eurochambres believes the 'Europe Without Barriers' theme of the Czech EU Presidency is "close to the heart of the business community". The theme suggests that European businesses have the "freedom [...] to innovate, to compete with one another and global rivals, and to grow". 

Eurochambres is also calling on the Czech Presidency to make the recovery plan its main priority by directly addressing the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises (SME), "easing access to finance for SMEs through the rapid and direct devolvement of EIB loans and the setting-up of guarantee schemes and loan subsidies". 

The business association also wants the Czech Presidency to ensure that Small Business Act (SBA) action plan measures are implemented "from the beginning of 2009". In particular, it urges the presidency to make certain that "member states develop their own medium-long term national roadmaps to guarantee the continued impact of the SBA". 

Timeline

  • 20 Jan. 2009: Inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. 
  • 19-20 March 2009: EU summit, Brussels. 
  • April 2009: Eastern Partnership summit in Prague (EU 27 plus Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan). 
  • 1 May 2009: Five-year anniversary of the EU's 2004 wave of enlargement. 
  • 18-20 June 2009: EU summit, Brussels. 

Dates for the EU-US, EU-Russia and EU-Balkans summits are yet to be fixed.