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Obama due in Prague for EU summit

Published on 05/04/2009

Prague — US President Barack Obama was due in Prague on Saturday a day ahead of a summit with EU leaders hosted by outgoing Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, a virulent critic of US economic recovery plans.

Obama was expected to hold talks with the Czech leadership on Sunday morning before meeting other European leaders and delivering a speech on the threat posed by nuclear weapons proliferation.

The summit is seen by Czechs as the peak of the nation’s six-month European Union presidency, which has been marred by controversies and the fall of the government last month.

Topolanek, who resigned after losing a vote of confidence, has denounced US stimulus plans as "the road to hell" and has been widely criticised by his European partners for his stewardship of the EU presidency.

"He finds himself in an embarrassing position with potential frictions" with the US administration, according to analyst Antonio Missiroli at Brussels think-tank European Policy Center.

Topolanek has also spurned attempts by Washington to persuade allies to take inmates from US military prison Guantanamo Bay.

Bilateral meetings between Obama and Topolanek and President Vaclav Klaus, a vocal opponent of climate change science and a fierce critic of the European Union, have been reduced to a minimum.

For the first time ever, however, Klaus will welcome a visiting president at Prague airport.

Obama was also set to meet former Czech president Vaclav Havel, Prague’s anti-communist icon.

After his arrival late Saturday afternoon, Obama will have dinner with his wife Michelle, who agreed on Friday to work with French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy to fight AIDS.

The rocky political situation in Prague is a body blow for the Czech presidency which critics say struggled from the start.

"It’s been a chaotic presidency which doesn’t really know what it wants," said one EU ambassador, who requested anonymity.

"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," said another diplomat.

Topolanek has set out his agenda for his meeting with Obama, saying he will seek to persuade him to persevere with a controversial missile shield project in eastern Europe.

"I will tell him that we, unlike him, are complying with the ratification" of diplomatic and military contracts on the missile shield signed in 2008, Topolanek said recently.

Washington’s new policy of dialogue with Moscow has increased anxiety among Prague and Warsaw leaders who support a radar base on Czech soil and anti-missile interceptors in Poland despite loud protests from Russia.

"I would say … the Americans are not yet completely clear on the issue" of the radar and that Obama "will tell us they are not giving the project up but they will not rush the way the previous administration did," said Topolanek.

The anti-missile project was officially devised to defend against long-range ballistic missiles possibly fired by "rogue states" such as Iran, but Moscow views it as a threat to Russian security.

Czech and Polish liberals are hoping the project will tie the two former communist central European countries more firmly to the west.

Obama’s visit has turned Prague’s historic centre into a well-guarded fortress with 4,000 police officers on duty. There is a rally protesting the US missile shield, scheduled for Sunday afternoon.

Prague City Hall has banned the rally saying it will block traffic in the city, but its organisers said the reason was "poor" and that they would ignore the ban and go ahead.

The historic Prague Castle, a popular target for tourists, where Obama will deliver his public address on Sunday morning, will be shuttered on Saturday afternoon.

Up to 30,000 people are expected to show up for the speech in the castle square which will be accessible through two narrow streets and a host of metal detectors from early Sunday morning.

Obama’s arrival will also restrict traffic at the Prague airport, which will halt takeoffs and landings for about 30 minutes as he arrives, said the airport’s spokeswoman Eva Krejci.