Interview: Czechs to push for closer transatlantic ties at EU helm

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The first EU-US summit to take place with the newly-elected American President will be a major highlight of the Czech EU Presidency which starts in January 2009, says David Král of the Europeum Institute for European Policy in Prague. But he also warns that Prague’s excellent relations with Washington could also further strain the EU’s relations with Moscow.

The EU-Russia summit, which also takes place under Czech Presidency, is expected to be very difficult, says David Král, who lectures at the Department of European Studies at Charles University in Prague. 

Král recognises that a big EU country such as France is in a much better position to influence Russia and act as a mediator, as shown during the Georgia crisis. The Russian style is to talk to the “big guys” and ignore smaller countries like the Czech Republic, he points out. 

As energy relations with Russia will likely remain high on the agenda, Král says the Czech government will also strongly push for negotiations on the Nabucco gas pipeline project to be advanced. The Nabucco project, favoured by the EU, is expected to reduce the bloc’s energy dependency on Russia, Král said. But it has been riddled with financing and political problems. 

The EU’s enlargement to the Western Balkans and relations with its eastern neighbours will be another highlight. “The government is very much pushing for enlargement to the Western Balkans, Croatia is very high on the agenda, but [French President] Sarkozy made it clear there is no way to continue with enlargement without the Lisbon Treaty,” Král said. Under the motto ‘Europe without frontiers’, Prague will also push for the elimination of labour market barriers following the EU’s 2004 and 2007 enlargements. 

Lisbon Treaty in the balance 

Moving on to institutional issues and the fate of the Lisbon Treaty, which is currently being examined by the Czech Consitutional Court, Král says he believes that the Czech government, led by the Civic Democrats (ODS), will have no choice but to stand behind it. The ODS negotiated the treaty, he points out, and Prime Minister Mirek Toploanek “cannot afford not to stand behind it”. 

The problem, as he sees it, lies with the upper chamber of Parliament, where ODS senators seem to have adopted a more lukewarm approach to the treaty. The challenge now is for the prime minister to get these senators on his side, Král said. 

A non-conformist presidency 

As for the position of Czech President Vaclav Klaus, Král describes him as “a non-conformist in international relations generally”. He advised foreign observers not to interpret his statements as the official Czech position, but rather as the personal position of a president without much power in foreign or European affairs. 

But non-conformism and a certain sense of provocation have something to do with the Czech character, Král said, referring to an ambiguous TV advertisement in which the symbol of the Czech EU Presidency is a sugar cube. 

Inspired by a famous statement by Klaus, who said the Czech Republic might dissolve into the EU like a cube of sugar in a cup of tea, Král says the government might also have chosen the symbol to say something different: “Yes, we might dissolve, but in the end it’s the sugar that influences the final product,” Král explained. 

The Czech scholar also suggested that the government could somehow become intimidated by the enormous task of managing an EU presidency. 

“Talking to people from the government, I have the feeling that they just want to somehow survive it, to manage the technical side of it. But then, on the other hand, you never know,” Král said. 

To read the interview in full, please click here.

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