Czech EU presidency limping towards finish line
With only about a month left in its six-month term at the EU's helm, the Czech presidency has stumbled many times, notably with its recent performance at the UN racism conference.Brussels -- When the Czech Republic assumed the mantle of the European Union in January it did so with fellow EU nations promising to help make its tenure a great success for a small country. But times change.
With over a month to run of its six-month term at the EU's helm, the Czech government has crumbled, it has picked a fight with the European Commission over Israel and the inauguration of the EU's Eastern Partnership with six ex-Soviet states is being criticised as ill-prepared.
The government of Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek lost a parliamentary confidence vote last month and will be replaced by an interim administration on May 8.
The Czechs did have a hard act to follow at the EU helm, taking over from France and the hyperactivity of its President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"The truth is that the Czech (EU) presidency has lost control on a number of dossiers,” one diplomat told AFP.
The propensity for diplomatic missteps was highlighted at a UN conference on racism in Geneva last week when the Czechs muddied a European protest against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by walking out of the talks definitively as he spoke.
Ambassadors from the rest of the EU nations that attended boycotted his speech and then rejoined the talks.
There have been other gaffes such as describing Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin by his old title of president in a statement and Topolanek's description of the US economic path as "the road to hell."
More substantially, the question of Israel has proved a diplomatic minefield for the Czech EU presidency.
In January, Jiri Frantisek Potuznik, Topolanek's EU presidency spokesman, described Israeli military action in Gaza as "more defensive than offensive," bringing a swift apology from the foreign minister.
Then last week, with Europe becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in the Middle East peace process, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner declared that plans to upgrade EU-Israel ties were being put on hold.
The Czech prime minister responded that "the peace process should not be linked to the relations between the EU and Israel," thereby pitting the EU presidency against the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, on a key foreign policy issue.
Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg managed to paper over the cracks at an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg Monday with a meandering statement which seemed to cover both sides of the argument.
At the end of the EU ministers' meeting champagne corks popped in honour of Schwarzenberg and deputy premier for European affairs Alexandr Vondra to mark their last time in the presidency seat at the forum.
Even that gesture was enough to raise eyebrows according to one diplomat present.
"The Czech presidency has perhaps done an acceptable job, but definitely not up to the champagne level," he complained.
Fellow diplomats, notably from the Belgian and Finnish camps, meanwhile deplored what they said was insufficient preparation for the Eastern Partnership meeting with six former Soviet states in Prague on May 7.
For this last grand EU meeting for Topolanek to host "the EU message has still not been prepared, we are getting lost in futile discussions," a diplomat said.
And nobody is expecting Topolanek's replacement Jan Fischer, currently head of the national statistics office, to improve matters greatly.
Topolanek didn't make Fischer's task of steering the EU presidency till the end of June any easier by declaring on Monday that "the Czech presidency in a way ends with the termination of this government," adding that Prague's "influence and ability to push matters through is significantly lower."
Many in the EU are waiting to see whether the notoriously eurosceptic Czech President Vaclac Klaus will attempt to exert his influence before the Czech EU presidency limps to an end.