The Czechs have taken over the EU presidency with a label of arch-eurosceptics, whose mandate to lead the club is further undermined by political turbulences at home. But in his policy announcement on Wednesday, the Czech prime minister presented a strong vision of where the EU should go and pledged to push its stalled institutional reform.

Speaking in the European Parliament, Mirek Topolánek reiterated his view that the Lisbon Treaty is a “difficult compromise”, but one that is worth accepting. He assured EU officials he would vote for its ratification in the Czech parliament, but said the EU must not pressure its members over the issue.

Outlining the Czech presidency’s goals for the next six months, the premier said that, in view of the current outage of gas supplies from Russia, building new oil and gas pipelines to diversify Europe’s supplies and transport routes, was “an issue of the highest priority”.

Early amateurism

Topolánek has big shoes to fill, becoming the EU Council’s president after the energetic French President Nicholas Sarkozy. Only about 100 of the 785 MEPs were present during Topolánek’s speech on Wednesday, according to Hospodářské noviny.

Czech and foreign media have taken more interest in the minor controversies surrounding the start of the Czech presidency.

Last week’s statement by Topolánek’s spokesman calling the Israeli attacks against Hammas an act of self-defence, was proof of the Czechs’ inexperience and amateurism for Libération’s Jean Quatremer. The Guardian’s David Cronin expressed concerns that the Czechs’ traditional pro-Israeli bias might hamper the EU’s efforts to stop Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

Meanwhile, a provocative art installation in the EU Council headquarters, commissioned by the Czech government, became even more controversial this week after Czech artist David Černý admitted he had made up the names of the other 26 artists signed under the project. Most pundits appreciate the artistic inventiveness of the huge mosaic and of Černý’s mystification, but some European politicians are offended by the way their country is portrayed.

The agenda is imposing itself

Despite these two minor incidents, the Czech government seems to be doing its best to run the EU well and has so far shown now signs of Euroscepticism or anti-Europeanism previously feared mainly by French media.

“We Czechs are 100% European,” wrote Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg in an opinion piece printed by The Guardian. He added that his country has no “nostalgic or idiosyncratic agenda that it wants to impose on the union. On the contrary, events have imposed an agenda on Europe that we cannot escape and for which solidarity – true union – will be needed.”

Topolánek flew to Kiev last week to help settle a dispute between Russia and Ukraine that had cut supplies of Russian natural gas to the central and eastern part of the EU.

After leading an EU delegation to the Middle East, Schwarzenberg pledged the EU would send humanitarian aid and observers to Gaza in a bid to end the conflict. He later told Haaretz that Israel would risk losing the EU’s support if it continued its offensive.

So where has the Czech Euroscepticism gone?

In a way, Topolánek and his team are left with little space for Eurosceptic views, with pressing agenda being imposed on them by external events. They may even be enjoying what the Czech weekly Respekt called the “adrenalin experience” of running a club of 27 countries and almost half a billion people from their previously quiet offices in Prague.

But above all it seems the perceived Euroscepticism has gone, at least for now, with the recent sidelining of the most vocal critic of the EU, Czech President Václav Klaus.

Scepticism sidelined

Despite having few constitutional powers, his earlier passionately anti-European (and anti-environmental) statements embarrassed the Czech government abroad (at one point the then foreign minister threatened he would no longer pay for Klaus’s trips), and they earned the Czechs the label of Eurosceptics among western journalists.

Yet, according to recent surveys, about two-thirds of Czechs think their country should work more closely with the EU and 50% believe Klaus’s opinions are hurting the image of the country. Only 45% support the Lisbon Treaty, but that is still more than in the UK and some other countries, where, similarly to the Czech Republic, leaders decided a parliamentary ratification was safer than a popular vote.

Towards the end of last year, Klaus suffered a number of defeats that have largely moved him away from the spotlight and let Topolánek’s Eurorealism come forth.

The Czech Constitutional Court in November unanimously rejected a complaint backed by the president, according to which the Lisbon Treaty was not compatible with the Czech constitution. The court enraged Klaus by stating that the transfer of some powers from national governments to Brussels, as stipulated in the treaty, does not undermine the member state’s sovereignty.

In early December, Topolánek was re-elected leader of the senior ruling Civic Democrats (ODS). The vote pacified the party’s staunchest eurosceptics and Klaus’s allies, including Topolánek’s challenger, Prague Mayor Pavel Bém. Klaus quit the party, which he had founded in the 1990s and where he was an honorary chairman.

As the pressing issues of the economic crisis, Middle Eastern conflict and lack of energy security fill the front pages of newspapers across Europe, the EU and its presiding country are growing in importance and Klaus’s personal opinions are increasingly isolated and harmless.

Kryštof Chamonikolas
is a journalist and translator living in
London. He likes writing about business and politics.
You can reach
him at krystof@praguemonitor.com