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