Today marks the official start of the Czech Republic’s six month turn in the EU Presidency.Â For those unfamiliar with the EU structure, it’s probably easiest to think of the EU Presidency as something of a chairmanship on a committee of equals.Â Having the Presidency will allow you some ability to set the agenda, host major meetings, and be treated as an important voice on matters of concern to the EU.Â At the same time, the short term of office and generally consensus-focused tradition limit any raw exercises of power.Â (In true EU fashion, it’s much more complicated than that – if you’re interested in the details, start here.)
The transition of the EU Presidency from France (the incumbent, until yesterday) to the Czech Republic has been the subject of much apprehension.Â First, it’s only been five years since the Czech Republic officially joined the European Union, and the Czech Republic’s own government isn’t exactly an example of the sort of solid and steady hand many would prefer at the helm.Â Second, the current Czech President – Vaclav Klaus – is a solid “Eurosceptic” (something of a catch-all term for those who oppose further accrual of power to the EU, away from the member states).Â That pictured car with the No EU sticker?Â That’s his.Â That sort of naked rejection of the EU leads to scenes like this recent meeting of ambassadors from EU countries in Prague:
[A] recent such lunch proved very awkward, thanks to its guest of honour: the countryâ€™s Eurosceptic president, Vaclav Klaus. He was politely asked about EU policies and how they might be handled when the Czechs take over the rotating EU presidency on January 1st. Each time the president growled that he was against the EU, so had no reason to answer such questions. The Czech presidency was an insignificant event, he added, because the EU is dominated by its big founding nations. Mr Klaus turned to the envoy from Slovenia, a former Yugoslav republic that was the first ex-communist newcomer to hold the rotating presidency, earlier this year. Everybody knows the Slovene presidency was a charade, he ventured. It was scripted by big countries like France or Germany.
Awkward, indeed.Â Klaus’ distrust of the big EU members is somewhat mutual:
A mood of impatience with the enlarged Europe helps to explain a mysterious plan, briefly floated by senior French officials, for Franceâ€™s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to continue hosting European summits after his countryâ€™s shot at the EU presidency finishes on December 31st. Such summits, it was briefed in Paris, would be reserved for heads of government from the inner core of countries that are in the single currency, the euro (possibly with Britain added). The Czechs, of course, are not: a detail that would allow Mr Sarkozy to continue running things in 2009, in case Czech leaders â€œsabotageâ€ the EU during their presidency, as an official from the ElysÃ©e Palace tactfully put it to French reporters.
While I’ve long thought that the EU’s rapid expansion was a bad idea, ignoring the system after it’s been put in place is an even worse one.Â Undermining the Czech Presidency will only serve to reinforce the suspicion that EU governance is largely a Franco-German affair, with the occasional assist from Britain.Â Â With that perception out there, there will be little chance that the EU can move beyond being mired in struggles over organizational matters.Â It would be far preferable to be able to focus on the merits of the Czechs’ stated goals for their term – financial deregulation, energy diversification/security, and reapproachment with Russia – than internal squabbles over who’s backyard will host the next EU summit on carbon emissions.