Outlining some of the main priorities of the incoming Czech EU Presidency, Milena Vicenova, the Czech ambassador to the bloc in Brussels, said her country would seek to hold an “informal summit” with the US in Prague, involving the leaders of the bloc’s 27 member states in a departure from the usual European ‘troika’ format of delegations.
Speaking on 16 December at the European Policy Centre think tank in Brussels, Vicenova said she felt “proud it will be up to the Czech presidency to start the first contacts with the next US administration”.
US President-elect Barack Obama takes office on 20 January and the Czechs are keen to build on their good relations with the US to give new impetus to the transatlantic partnership, after eight years of strained relations under the Bush administration.
“We intend to invite Mr. Obama to Europe, and we would be very happy if this meeting could take place in Prague,” she said, adding: “I speak of an informal meeting with Mr. Obama and the heads of EU member states.”
The venue for annual EU-US summits alternates between the United States and the country holding the EU Council Presidency. The last such summit was hosted by Slovenia on 10 June 2008, and thus under normal circumstances the next summit should take place in the US.
However, Vicenova spoke instead of holding “an informal meeting” that would involve all the leaders of the 27-member bloc. Usually, the EU delegation is composed of a ‘troika’ comprising the leader of the country holding the six-month rotating EU presidency, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana.
The informal summit could take place in April or May, maybe alongside a NATO summit to be attended by Obama in early April on the French-German border at Strasbourg and Kehl, which are joined by a bridge across the Rhine, according to AFP.
But Vicenova said it was not yet clear whether Obama would accept the idea. “I cannot promise to what extent this will be successful,” she said.
As part of the transatlantic agenda, improving relations between the EU and NATO will also form a major part of the Czech Republic’s ambitions at the EU helm, Vicenova said. “We consider it very important to bring these two institutions closer, and this will be the main subject of discussion at the NATO summit on 4 April in Strasbourg.”
Meanwhile, the Czech ambassador also said her country would follow up on proposals tabled by the European Commission earlier this month to develop an Eastern Partnership to improve ties with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and particularly Ukraine.
“We consider the Eastern Partnership to be very useful. We have an exact plan on how to approach the issues of visa facilitation, economic cooperation, reaching deeper free-trade agreements with these six countries. We intend to launch this initiative officially at the European Council and afterwards invite the leaders of EU countries and the six Eastern Partnership countries to a summit.”
Czechs outshone by the French Presidency?
Vicenova rejected suggestions that the Czech Presidency would be overshadowed by the preceding French Presidency, which was generally considered to be a great success. “I am not afraid at all of being overshadowed by the French Presidency. We have a schedule of 2,200 meetings that will be held here in Brussels and some 239 that will be held in Prague,” the ambassador said.
She did acknowledge that the French might feel disappointment in handing over the EU reins to someone else, however, noting that “after six months, you feel you understand what the presidency is, and you might think it’s a pity that you lose this role”.
“It is very natural that once you take over the presidency, you like it,” she said. “I hope these six months will convince you that we are serious and intend to do our best with the presidency.”
The Czech ambassador also expressed her hope that the European elections, which are scheduled to take place on 4-7 June 2009, would be a success. “We will do everything in our power to avoid low turnout our voter apathy, and we hope to keep a positive spirit.”
She also expressed hope that the positive benefits of EU membership would be communicated to voters in a “simple and understandable way, not using ‘Eurospeak’ or complicated phrases”. “I wish we were more able to present simple, clear outcomes of what we discuss and the work we do in Brussels. Cooperation with NGOs is very important here. They have a better feeling for the concerns of citizens. If we succeed in this, turnout at the elections will for sure be better than we currently fear,” Vicenova said.