Gas and Gaza provide tough start for Czech EU presidency
Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek made some early blunders but is emerging as a relatively strong leader, analysts say.Brussels -- The Czech government has had a baptism of fire after assuming the EU presidency on New Year's Day, but has won some kudos from analysts for its diplomatic efforts to solve the Russia-Ukraine gas crisis.
Given the problems within the coalition government in Prague and the nuisance value of Eurosceptic Czech President Vaclav Klaus, some diplomats had voiced concerns about how the EU's rotating presidency would fare in the hands of the small Czech Republic which has only been a European Union member since 2004.
The previous French EU presidency was led by the hyperactive President Nicolas Sarkozy, who left the role reluctantly, promising to come up with new initiatives even after the Czechs took over on January 1.
True to his word, Sarkozy travelled to the Middle East this month and helped draw up a plan for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and a humanitarian truce.
In doing so, he relegated an official EU mission to the region, led by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, to a supporting role, said Antonio Missiroli, an analyst at the European Policy Centre.
To make matters worse, a spokesman for Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, described Israel's military action in Gaza as "more defensive than offensive."
The blunder was rapidly rectified with a Czech foreign ministry statement which asserted that "even the indisputable right of the state to defend itself does not allow actions which largely affect civilians."
The swift volte-face showed that the Czech EU presidency was still learning how to make the necessary distinction between national thinking and European diplomacy, according to Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn.
Other smaller errors resulted merely in smiles and winces.
In one official EU presidency statement, Vladimir Putin was referred to by his old job title of Russian president rather than his new one as prime minister, an understandable Freudian lapse according to Missiroli.
However the Czech EU presidency has been most closely tested by the row between Russia and Ukraine which has resulted in a key gas pipeline being shut off, leaving most EU nations with a natural gas shortage amid a mid-winter cold snap.
At first there was an impression of hesitancy, with EU officials repeating the mantra that this was a bilateral commercial dispute for the two parties to solve, said Thomas Klau, researcher at the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations.
However, on Thursday Topolanek, spurred on by his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk, embarked upon an energetic bout of shuttle diplomacy.
Rolling up his sleeves, he made sure he had a good team in his corner; with German Chancellor Angela Merkel providing ample support along with the European Commission, only too happy to resume a leading role after being marginalized by the French, according to analysts.
After 24 hours of ferrying between Moscow and Kiev, Topolanek appeared to have secured a deal which would allow for the swift reopening of the Russian gas taps and a collective sigh of relief across Europe.
Then, late Sunday, the Czech EU presidency learned another lesson in the growing field of European Union diplomacy when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the carefully brokered EU-brokered deal was off.
However, if the deal fails, then the blame cannot be dumped solely at the door of the Czech Republic, some analysts said.
According to Klau, for instance, the EU underestimated the Russian-Ukraine gas problem and displayed the kind of divisions and inefficiencies which have contributed to create the conditions for the current problem. "You can't expect the Czech presidency to resolve all internal contradictions within 48 hours," he said.
A French diplomat concurred that on this issue even Sarkozy "would have had some difficulties."