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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.

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Concerns about Klaus are understandable, and Klaus has done little to temper his anti-European views in the run up to his term.

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He created a diplomatic firestorm during a state visit to Ireland in November, dining with Declan Ganley, the leader who orchestrated the Irish "no" vote against the Lisbon Treaty this summer. Later that month, he testified against the Lisbon Treaty before the Czech Constitutional Court. In December, Klaus had a terse exchange with an EU delegation sent to Prague Castle ahead of the French hand-over.

Jiri Pehe, a former advisor to the last Czech president, Vaclav Havel, says Klaus is largely to blame for the EU-held image of the Czech Republic as an uncooperative member: The country is one of only a few that have not ratified the Lisbon Treaty, and it has been reluctant to set a firm date for adopting the euro currency. Yet two thirds of Czechs in a recent poll said they support EU membership.

"The problem with the Czech government is that it is seen as euro-skeptical and not providing leadership," says Mr. Pehe. "If we did not have Klaus we would be OK. But enter Vaclav Klaus and you have a big problem. He has become not a Euro-skeptic but a Euro-phobe."

Klaus rose to prominence in postcommunist Czech Republic, orchestrating the country's split with Slovakia in 1993 and founding the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), one of the country's two main political parties.

He was prime minister from 1992 to 1997, and was elected president by the Czech parliament in 2003. A former finance professor and unabashed free-marketer, Klaus argued against the country's EU bid in 2004 and remains critical of Brussels, which he says encroaches on countries' sovereignty. Klaus' most recent book is an antienvironmentalist tract, and he has called environmental movements a threat similar to communism. He has likened the EU to the former Soviet Union.

The motto for the Czech EU presidency is "Europe Without Barriers." The Czechs plan to focus on Europe's economy and energy policy while floating an ambitious "eastern neighborhood initiative" to bring Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova closer to the EU.

Jan Techau, director of European Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations, says Klaus is unlikely to directly undermine the Czech EU presidency. More worrying, he says, is the prospect of the Czech government falling.

Klaus is at loggerheads with the Prime Minister Topolanek, who is barely holding onto power thanks to a break some Klaus loyalists have made inside the coalition government. For months, the pro-Europe Topolanek has faced calls to resign. [Editor's note: Mr. Topolanek is not a member of the Social Democratic Party. He's a member of the ODS.]

"Traditionally the European Union presidency has a stabilizing effect," Mr. Techau says. "But the domestic situation in the Czech Republic is so contentious and unpredictable, it's really a question whether the government can hold. This could undermine the Czech presidency."

• 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

Czech EU Priorities