BRUSSELS -- When the Czech Republic takes over the rotating EU Presidency on January 1, it will have a tough act to follow after France, which is widely regarded to have had an impressive stint at the bloc's helm in the face of numerous global crises.
Czech officials in Brussels are telling their EU colleagues they are almost certain their country's presidency will be "tested" in some way by Russia.
That test could take the shape of a new crisis in EU relations or an escalation of an existing tension -- over Georgia, energy security, or some other issue.
With or without the presence of a crisis, some fear Russia will try to marginalize the Czech Republic's position at the EU's helm by pursuing bilateral contacts with the larger EU countries.
Georgia remains potentially the most difficult trial for the Czech presidency. It remains unclear to what extent Russia's honoring of the various commitments it has entered into will depend on the continued personal involvement of the French president. Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated those commitments with little regard for the EU's shared foreign-policy apparatus and much appears to ride on personalities.
Sarkozy has repeatedly said he wants to retain a high profile in EU affairs after the French presidency ends on December 31. He could find easy justification for this in the so-called troika mechanism, which obligates incumbent EU presidencies to involve their immediate predecessors and successors in some of their work.
Sarkozy has also said he favors an "intergovernmental" approach to EU affairs -- code for direct dealing between bigger EU capitals at the expense of the EU's shared institutions.
A Smaller Presidency
All that could cause friction with Prague.
The Czech Republic will have to represent the EU at a summit that Russia will host at some point during its presidency.
Paradoxically, fellow EU members from the former eastern bloc see Prague's six-month elevation with mixed feelings. Their officials have praised French determination in tackling Russia in the wake of the Georgian conflict -- imperfect as its results may have been -- as something necessarily outside the powers of smaller member states.
"The French presidency was extremely effective, its diplomats very capable, even if we didn't sometimes share their views" said one Eastern European diplomat in Brussels. "With the Czech Republic, our views are near-identical, but it is doubtful, frankly, whether they will be able to perform to the same level."
The Czech Republic could see its EU leadership role further hamstrung by its decision to host parts of a planned U.S. missile shield. Russia vehemently opposes the project, ostensibly aimed at neutralizing threats posed by states such as Iran, and has threatened to station Iskander-type missile batteries in its Kaliningrad exclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania in response.
The U.S. missile-defense plan has been openly criticized by EU heavyweights France and Germany as an ill-conceived affront to Russia. The Czech Republic together with co-host Poland have made no secret that their main motive in hosting the U.S. missile shield is to secure themselves against a possible threat from Russia. U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has yet to endorse the project.
Russia will also be a factor in the preparations for an EU Neighborhood Policy "Eastern Partnership" summit scheduled to take place in Prague in the spring. The Eastern Partnership project was conceived by Poland and Sweden as a response to the French-inspired creation of a Mediterranean Union earlier this year.
Although not among the invitees -- who include Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan -- Moscow is already casting a long shadow over the process.
At the last EU summit on December 15-16 Italy, Spain, Greece, and Cyprus tried but failed to have the EU publicly declare that the neighborhood summit is not intended to "antagonize" Russia. With backing from France and Germany, these four countries argue Russia has certain privileged interests in its neighborhood that the EU must respect in order to maintain a harmonious and profitable relationship with Moscow.
The Czech Republic -- along with most of the other new EU members from the east -- oppose any talk of Moscow's "privileged interests" in the region.
The most significant outcome of the neighborhood summit could be the full inclusion of Belarus in the policy. Long shunned because of the authoritarian practices of its strongman leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the EU has quickly warmed to the country in the wake of the Russian-Georgian conflict.
The Czech Republic will also be keeping an eye on NATO's 60th anniversary summit, hosted jointly by France and Germany in April. Paris is slated to mark the occasion by rejoining NATO's integrated military command, which it left in 1966, and French observers speculate that President Sarkozy may take the opportunity to promote his vision for a new defense initiative for Europe.
This could, again, raise the specter of Russia, as the French president is known to back President Dmitry Medvedev's vision of a new "security architecture" for Europe that would transcend bloc divisions and in so doing diminish NATO's importance.
After the last EU-Russia summit on November 14, Sarkozy suggested the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) should convene a summit to discuss the issue in "mid-2009."
But here again, the Czech Republic along with many other EU members, as well as the United States, isn't enthusiastic about the idea.
The NATO summit is likely to provide the setting for Barack Obama's first visit to Europe in his capacity as president of the United States. The Czech Republic will fight hard to win the right to host an EU-U.S. summit in Prague. It could be the last EU Presidency to do so, as the bloc's Lisbon Treaty -- if approved in the course of 2009 -- will require that all future summits take place in Brussels.
Ironically, the Czech Republic's Achilles' heel in pursuing its EU ambitions could be its own president. Although the Czech Constitution doesn't give the head of state a role in shaping foreign policy, the famously euro-skeptical Vaclav Klaus loves a stage.
Klaus has attracted much attention lately by refusing to fly the EU flag on his palace. He opposes the Lisbon Treaty, calling himself an "EU dissident," and he hasn't hesitated to criticize the euro currency -- and most recently -- Sarkozy himself.
All ingredients for an interesting EU Presidency -- at the very least for journalists.