Czechs to take over EU helm from France
After months of preparatory work, the former communist country that joined the EU in 2004 is ready for its six-month "endurance test."
Prague -- The Czech Republic takes over the rotating European Union presidency from France on Thursday with several big issues to deal with, including a looming dispute over gas supplies with Russia.
After months of preparatory work, the former communist country that joined the EU in 2004 is ready for its six-month "endurance test," said Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra.
In the past weeks, Czech officials have been battling concerns about their ability to take the EU helm from France amid the global economic crisis and after the successful French tenure dominated by President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The role of Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek as the EU's president in office will be all the more harder as euroskeptic Czech President Vaclav Klaus keeps criticizing most things European in his speeches and statements.
Vondra said there was no point in setting too ambitious goals for the presidency which the Czech Republic enters with three priorities -- energy security, external relations, and the economy at the time of crisis.
"We will be glad if we manage to complete two specific things," Vondra said, pointing at energy security issues and the EU's eastern partnership.
Prague is now watching closely Moscow's and Kiev's efforts to strike a deal over Ukraine's two billion dollars of unpaid gas debts.
Russian energy giant Gazprom has warned it will cut off supplies to Ukraine if the debt is not settled, saying that a new contract needs to be signed by January 1 and no deal can be inked without the money being paid.
A cut in deliveries could even hit west European consumers, who receive Russian gas that transits across Ukraine and were affected by a similar dispute in January 2006.
Topolanek told AFP in a recent interview he was concerned about such unexpected crises in particular. "I am sure some unexpected events will come," he warned.
In the case of a crisis, a "small European country" such as the Czech Republic, which was a member of the Moscow-led bloc during its communist past, finds it difficult to make the Russian giant listen, Vondra said.
The Czech position for talks with Russia has also been weakened due to recent tensions over US plans to build part of an anti-missile shield, perceived as a threat by Moscow, on the Czech territory.
But the Czech Republic is still planning to organize an EU-Russia summit during the first half of 2009.
Energy security will also be an issue at a meeting of EU foreign ministers, scheduled to take place in Prague on January 8, which will be the first meeting held within Prague's EU presidency.
In mid-December, Prague announced it would also like to host an EU-Israel summit side by side with an EU-Palestine summit, without giving the date.
These two summits have gained urgency after Israel's launched air strikes on the Gaza Strip, which have so far claimed the lives of more than 360 Palestinians.
During their tenure, the Czechs are also hoping to host the first EU summit with US president-elect Barack Obama, to start a rapprochement process with former Soviet countries Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova, and continue the EU integration process in commemoration of the 2004 enlargement they were a part of.