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'Chaotic’ Czech EU Presidency Comes To Close

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek will be remembered for his "path to hell" remark, as well as an infamous paparazzi photograph.
Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek will be remembered for his "path to hell" remark, as well as an infamous paparazzi photograph.
The symbolic handover took place on the River Vltava in Prague.

Two men in a row boat -- including a somewhat portly former deputy prime minister -- heaved a barrel of Czech beer onto another vessel full of Swedish diplomats.

Claiming that the boats were pitching dangerously, France's "Le Figaro" sneered that the Czech presidency of the European Union had ended in chaos – just as it had begun.

That might be uncharitable, but it's typical of the reviews the Czechs have received during their six months at the EU's helm.

Even before it began on January 1, there were worries about whether Czech President Vaclav Klaus -- a vocal critic of the EU and, in particular, its Lisbon reform treaty -- would spoil the party.

And, indeed, Klaus raised hackles in February when he stood before the European Parliament and told its members that the EU was suffering from a "democratic deficit." Some of them walked out in protest.

But it wasn't only Klaus.

'We Are Really Sorry'

Who could forget "Entropa," the official Czech artwork that used stereotypes to depict the EU’s 27 members?

"We are really sorry that we insulted individual nations,” artist David Cerny, the brains behind the mosaic, said after Bulgaria got upset at being portrayed as a squat toilet.

A closeup of the controversial Bulgaria portion of the "Entropa" art installation
The offending toilet was duly cloaked. And the whole installation was later taken down ahead of schedule.

Which is what happened to Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek and his government.

“I will hand my resignation to the president as required by the constitution,” Topolanek said after his government lost a parliamentary vote of confidence in March.

It was the culmination of domestic political tensions that saw Topolanek’s team give way to a new government of experts.

The vote didn’t stop Topolanek from telling the European Parliament the very next day what he thought of U.S. efforts to battle the economic crisis.

“A path to hell,” he called them, explaining later that he’d been inspired by a rock song.

But worse was to come, in the form of a photo showing a naked man -- “slightly aroused,” as one Czech tabloid gleefully reported -- at the seaside villa of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

After days of speculation, Topolanek admitted he was that man.

'Very Colorful'

No wonder Richard Whitman, an associate fellow in the Europe program at London’s Chatham House think tank, says the Czech EU Presidency was “very colorful.”

Czech President Vaclav Klaus criticized the EU for its "democratic deficit."
“[There was] lots of media coverage for the presidency – highly unusual in that sense," Whitman says. "But the bad news was that perhaps the coverage was for all the wrong reasons.”

But Whitman says the fall of the government during the presidency, while unfortunate, did not derail it because the bulk of the work is done “under the surface” by diplomats and civil servants -- not political leaders.

He notes the Czech presidency inherited some difficult situations, such as the financial crisis and Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

And he points to some successes – notably, how the Czech presidency helped solve January’s dispute between Russia and Ukraine that cut off gas supplies to Europe.

“There was an awful lot going on foreign-policy wise and so they were juggling a lot of things," Whitman says. "Certainly, on the gas dispute, that was a definite positive for the presidency. And also to be fair to the Presidency, they kept the show on the road when it came to an issue like enlargement and the enlargement negotiations with the Croats, which have been a difficult negotiation but haven’t entirely ground to a halt.”

Prague 'Left Its Mark'

Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer, summing up at a press conference on June 29, said the Czech EU Presidency had notched up other successes, too.

He said it had prevented the EU from veering toward protectionism as it battled the economic crisis.

In May it launched the Eastern Partnership program aimed at boosting ties with six former Soviet republics.

And the final summit led by the Czechs worked out a deal aimed at persuading Irish voters to accept the EU’s Lisbon reform treaty in a new vote.

"The Czech presidency showed that even a new member, a member that is not big, can make a contribution to the EU and leave its mark and not just stir up dust,” Fischer said.

The Czech Republic now hands over to Sweden, which may be hoping its presidency, starting July 1, is a rather more boring affair.

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