As the United States prepares for a momentous political shift in less than three weeks, Europe has just marked its own first: a president from the former Soviet bloc. As the Czech Republic -- a member for just four years -- today took over from France the European Union's six-month rotating presidency, a country that up till now has been best known for some of the world's best beer becomes head brewmaster in Brussels at a time of frantic fermentation on the international scene.
Despite votes of confidence from Euro bigwigs like Javier Solana and José Barroso, what has made many nervous is the prospect of a helmsman with limited EU experience, on top of a shaky government, an economy that doesn't do business in euros (even the Slovaks just got with that program, for crying out loud), and a parliament which alone in Europe hasn't ratified the Lisbon Treaty, designed to both streamline the EU and deepen its integration (Ireland's voters sank Lisbon last June but are expected to vote again in late '09). Some had even suggested the Czechs swap places with their successor, Sweden, or that France extend its tenure.
Admittedly, the Euro-presidency is admittedly a largely ceremonial job, and in an agglomeration of 25 countries and 470 million people, what can be accomplished in just six months is fairly limited. So why then should Americans care?
For starters, Europe as a bloc is more than our single largest trade partner (more than $600 billion in 2007); it's also a key partner in helping the Obama-Biden administration navigate a landmine-riddled foreign-policy landscape. Coordinating with it in these coming months will be vital in containing the spreading economic crisis, and it's where a newly aggressive Russia will test both Obama and the EU -- and in fact has already been doing so. Besides growling for months about placing missiles near its western border in response to a planned U.S. missile installation in Poland and radar base in the Czech Republic (meant, it's claimed, to deter a potentially nuclear Iran), the Putin-Medvedev regime today again wielded energy as a weapon by cutting off natural gas exports to Ukraine.
As the EU presidency's outgoing occupant, Nicolas Sarkozy, has shown, who's in the driver's seat can set the tone and affect events in tough times; though far from perfect, Sarko's pro-active and take-charge (indeed, sometimes downright hyper) management style has been credited with keeping the lid on crises like Russia's invasion of Georgia and the beginning of the worst economic meltdown in EU history. For example, the less experienced, untested Czechs are putting together an EU diplomatic mission to Gaza this weekend, but will they really be up to the task of managing the explosive situation now unfolding in the Middle East?
Apart from viewing the Czechs as lethargic lightweights -- even worse in the eyes of many Europeans is that they're also considered less than adoring fans of the EU itself. The single biggest problem is their cantankerous, provocative president Václav Klaus, 67, a right-wing economist once dubbed "Margaret Thatcher in pants." Klaus likes to play the S.O.B., as Amitai Etzioni pointed out here the other day; he's pooh-poohed his country's presidency as "insignificant" because real power remains with the likes of France, Germany, and the U.K. He trumpets opposition to the Lisbon Treaty, and asserts that the EU becoming as dangerous as was the Soviet Union. He recently caused an uproar while visiting Ireland, where he not only met with anti-treaty groups but slammed its foreign minister for "hypocrisy." Mused the Irish Times, "It looks like the Czech presidency could be as explosive as another famous Czech invention: Semtex."
So what's with the contrarianism? The Czechs have long tended to be wary of Europe and admire the United States (especially during the Cold War; Ronald Reagan has a special place in the national pantheon). Since 1989, they've mostly hewed toward free-market economics, away from the social democracy prevalent to their west, and away from excessive coziness with Russia. Except for the Russia part, Klaus is a more right-wing, bomb-throwing distillation of this; among other things, he's called climate-change worries "silly" (his latest book: Blue Planet in Green Chains), criticized the euro currency, and declared himself "horrified" by the recent G20 summit in Washington. That he's simultaneously pro-Russia -- a Vladimir Putin pal who lays the blame on Tbilisi for Moscow's invasion of Georgia -- puzzles many (some conspiracy-minded types explain this by claiming that Klaus helped Prague's Communist regime infiltrate the dissident movement and even today remains influenced by a Kremlin that apart from economics hasn't shaken off a Soviet-style mentality).
So is all this a recipe for fireworks, or at least stalemate, at a dangerous point in history? Prague's official presidential plans are hardly controversial - improving relations with Israel and former Soviet-bloc countries, for example, and focusing on economic and energy issues. And it's not Klaus but prime minister Mirek Topolánek -- far more conciliatory on Europe -- who'll be running the show; Topolánek notes that while he, too, has problems with the Lisbon Treaty, "the real choice is Lisbon or Moscow." Finally, the Euro-presidency's structure leaves the Czechs' predecessor France and successor Sweden closely involved in decisionmaking (in fact, many observers think Sarkozy will push ahead his own initiatives, almost as if he hadn't given up the job).
And it's clear that the sailing won't all be smooth, even though today's passing of the torch was bland and low-key; in recent months, for example, the Czech finance minister at one point came out against a key EU economic stimulus proposal, and the country's tentative agreement to host that U.S. missile defense radar system became a big domestic issue as well as a thorn in relations with Russia. The biggest wild card of course remains loose cannon Klaus himself, who recently resigned from his prime minister's party and plans to promote a new anti-EU party in the Czech Republic called Libertas. His is by far the strongest personality in his country's government, and even with limited official involvement, the coming spotlight could make his sniping plenty embarrassing. In December he got into a spat in Prague with visiting Euro parliamentarians; asserted he'd refuse to fly the EU flag over his office; and gave a TV interview saying Sarkozy "hurt Europe" during France's Euro-presidency. Break out the Semtex, boys and girls.
But maybe there could be something of an upside to a Euroskeptic -- or as some prefer to put it, "Euro-realist" -- presidency besides sheer entertainment value. Plenty of Europeans like the EU but don't want to surrender all power to the mandarins in Brussels. In giving voice to them, Prague could provide a populist tap of the brakes that longterm could promote greater consensus Unionwide. As for Russia, while West Europeans are phobic about antagonizing the bear, the Czechs have relations with Moscow that are correct without that sometimes ingratiating edge (albeit now somewhat complicated by the planned radar base, which is also not hugely popular at home).
For the Obama administration, it will certainly help to work with a head of Europe that's proved more innately pro-U.S. than many others on the continent; 86 percent of Czechs declared themselves pleased with Obama's election, and the government would love him to come to its spring EU summit in Prague. We shouldn't underestimate all this extra good will, because with crises frothing up like foam on a Czech Pilsener, we're going to need all the help we can get.