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After Sarkozy, a Czech takes EU helm

Czech President Vaclav Klaus, an economist and self-proclaimed 'Euro-dissident,' is critical of much of the governing body's efforts.

By Jeff WhiteCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 2, 2009

In charge: Vaclav Klaus takes the reins of the European Union when his country assumes the rotating EU presidency on Jan 1.

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PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC

He has called global warming a myth, backed Russia's recent invasion of Georgia, likened bank bailouts to socialism, and refuses to fly the European Union flag over his office in the Prague Castle.

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On nearly every issue of significance, Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus is at odds with Brussels, and he seldom misses a chance to make note of this.

Now the economist's shadow will loom over the EU as never before, when France officially hands over the six-month rotating presidency of the 27-member bloc to the Czech Republic on Jan. 1. The position gives each member state a chance to set Europe's agenda and advance one or two large initiatives.

France has received mostly high marks for its turn at Europe's helm, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy credited with leading the EU's diplomacy during the Russia-Georgia war, orchestrating a European approach to bank bailouts, pushing through climate-change legislation and revising the beleaguered Lisbon Treaty, the EU's attempt at a constitution.

But with the financial crisis in Europe worsening and climate change expected to remain a key issue, the expectation of the Czech Republic's turn is decidedly more mixed. Mr. Klaus, who calls himself a "Euro-dissident," has been an outspoken critic of the EU's handing of both issues, and he staunchly opposes the Lisbon Treaty.

And at a time when Europe is trying to become more unified, Klaus says he wants Brussels considerably less involved in the affairs of Europeans.

Western Europe's apprehension of Klaus reflects the general unease with which bigger countries such as France and Germany view the prospect of a newer member (and former communist country) controlling the EU agenda for the next six months. Only one other former communist country, Slovenia, has held the presidency, though France was seen as running things behind the scenes.

As Czech president, Klaus has little formal power in the Czech government and is unlikely to play the kind of active role Mr. Sarkozy made his hallmark during France's EU presidency. That will fall to the Czech's struggling prime minister, Mirek Topolanek, a bitter foe of Klaus.

Yet Klaus is providing an excuse for some Europeans, notably France, to voice unease. As his term wrapped up, Sarkozy all but directly proposed to extend France's EU presidency another six months, and he is organizing a series of financial summits between eurozone countries for early 2009, which promises to steal some thunder from the Czechs.

"I have no doubt that the French have made efforts to weaken the role of the Czech EU presidency," says Jana Bobosikova, a Czech member of the European Parliament.

• Ensuring energy securityr Using research and development along with small/medium business enterprise to increase Europe's competitivenessr "Eastern neighborhood initiative" to bring Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova closer to the EUr

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