The end of the year is fast approaching, and with it the EU reign of SuperSarko is coming to an end as well. On December 31 at Midnight France will pass the rotating EU presidency to the Czech Republic, which will hold the position for the next six months. With the ratification of the EU reform treaty still up in the air, it will be an incredibly volatile time to hold the leadership position. And with the Czech president a notorious EU-hater, it's going to be an awkward few months
It is perhaps ironic that the EU reform treaty is set to abolish the cumbersome rotating EU presidency, which is handed off to a new country every six months. During this critical time, it could be the holder of the rotating presidency that kills the treaty.
The tension that the next six months will bring was in evidence at a recent lunch for European ambassadors to the Czech Republic. As recounted by the Economist, the guest of honour at the meeting, Czech president Vaclav Klaus, made the meeting extreemly uncomfortable. After being politely asked about how the Czech EU presidency might handle various EU policies, Klaus responded with an angry diatribe about how since he is against the EU's existence, he has no reason to answer such questions. He then followed this with an angry speech about how the Czech presidency is irrelevant anyway because the EU is always dominated by the big founding nations no matter who holds the presidency. He even turned to the envoy from Slovenia and accused that country's presidency for the first half of this year of being a farce.
Now it's important to point out that the Czech presidency is a largely ceremonial position with no direct power over domestic or foreign policy, as many in the Czech government have been quick to point out. But his symbolic importance is huge. At a time when Irish millionaires are seeking to build a pan-European movement against the EU reform treaty, the fact that the current ceremonial figurehead of the EU himself is against it is not insignificant. Comments like the ones made at this recent lunch will become a rallying cry for Eurosceptics across the continent over the next six months, and Vaclav Klaus will be the hero of the anti-treaty movement. Klaus had a well-publicized dinner with millionaire Irish anti-Lisbon campaigner Declan Ganley in November, and he still refuses to fly the EU flag over Prague Castle.
My former professor while I was studying in Prague, Jiri Pehe, told the BBC this week that the EU "has the right to be worried a bit about the Czech presidency." Pehe, an advisor to the first post-communist Czech president Vaclav Havel, should know. The Czech Republic itself is only 19 years old, and it's only been a member of the EU since 2002. "This 19-year-old teenager is now taking over a bus with 26 other people on board," Pehe told the BBC. "Maybe the rest of the European Union would be OK if this particular teenager was driving the bus on an empty road with no intersections ahead, but I think we are facing very difficult traffic, with several complicated intersections."
So it's perhaps not surprising that French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been reluctant to hand over the reigns to his Czech counterpart. Over the past few weeks there have been rumours of a secret French plan for Sarkozy to continue hosting European summits after the new year, inviting only those countries that use the euro. This plan, according to insiders would allow Sarko to maintain control if Klaus attempts to "sabotage" the EU during the Czech presidency. Recently an official from the Elysee Palace used that exact word to describe the process.
It will probably become clear within the first month of 2009 how Klaus, and the Czech government, intend to proceed with the presidency. But a confrontational tact would throw the EU into pandemonium just as it is desperately seeking to get the reform treaty ratified. Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy year.