EU to host Obama with enfeebled Czech presidency under fire
Prague — The European Union on Sunday holds its first summit with US President Barack Obama, with the hosting Czech EU presidency in the firing line for attacking Washington’s crisis response.
Prague’s chance to be in the limelight with the popular new US president is further dimmed by the collapse of the government and growing criticism from EU partners about its handling of the bloc’s rotating presidency.
The opportunity to host Obama and EU leaders was supposed to be the crowning moment for Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek’s six-month presidency of the European Union.
"Instead he finds himself in an embarrassing position with potential frictions" with the US administration, said analyst Antonio Missiroli at Brussels think-tank European Policy Center.
Obama arrives on Saturday night in a country mired in political turmoil.
Topolanek is a virtual prime minister after he tendered his resignation last week in the wake of a successful no-confidence vote brought by the opposition Social-Democrats.
Meanwhile, the head of state is the extremely eurosceptic President Vaclav Klaus, who likes to compare the European Union to the Soviet Union — at a time when Europe wants to be seen as an equal to the United States in tackling the economic crisis.
"Europe needs very strong leadership in this time of crisis. but the government that holds the EU presidency and in which confidence has been lost cannot assume this leadership," leading conservative EU lawmaker Joseph Daul said recently.
The rocky political situation in Prague is a body blow for the Czech presidency which has struggled from the start to impose its leadership and which has failed to impress its EU partners.
"It’s been a chaotic presidency which doesn’t really know what it wants," one EU ambassador said on condition of anonymity.
The big EU countries like Britain, Germany and France have been busy taking over top business, leaving the Czech presidency in the background.
Prague’s plans for a summit of all EU leaders in the Czech capital in May on the employment situation were flatly ruled out by other countries and the European Commission.
On top of its problems, the free-market friendly Czech government has put itself at odds with its EU partners on tackling the economic crisis, insisting that governments resist costly spending campaigns to prop up their economies.
"The country that is presiding over the EU is going it alone against the others on what economic choices need to be made," a senior European diplomat said.
Topolanek’s deep doubts about massive economic stimulus plans has got him in hot water with Washington, which he sharply criticised last week for spending trillions on reviving growth.
Topolanek told lawmakers at the European Parliament in Strasbourg that "the United States is not on the right path" with its costly plans to jump start the world’s biggest economy.
"All of these steps, their combination and their permanency is a way to hell. We need to read the history books," he said in comments which aides quickly sought to down play and even outright deny had been said.
"Topolanek did not understand that he cannot speak the same way when he addresses the Czech public and when he speaks in the name of the European Union," one diplomat said.
At the summit with Obama, the Czech Republic will also not be on solid footing to defend European interests on climate change, which the bloc is eager to raise with the new US administration.
President Klaus recently described climate change as an "inexistent problem" and he has repeatedly attacked environmentalists’ "alarmism" about the matter.