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EU Power Vacuum Threatens As Czech Government Falls


Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek is silhouetted against a wall in parliament after his tripartite government lost a vote of no-confidence on March 24.
Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek is silhouetted against a wall in parliament after his tripartite government lost a vote of no-confidence on March 24.
To say that the EU is in on the brink of another crisis as a result of the fall of the Czech government would be an exaggeration.

But the defeat suffered this week in Prague comes at an awkward time for both the European Union and the Czechs who hold the EU's rotating presidency.

While the long-term thrust of EU policy is not in question, the Czechs must now guide the bloc with a caretaker government in the midst of global financial crisis. Moreover, the Czech government's loss of legitimacy could lead to a damaging power struggle within the 27-member bloc.

The center-right government's opponents have made clear that it will be allowed to serve out its EU mandate in a caretaker capacity, with day-to-day EU business going on as usual and Czechs chairing regular meetings in Brussels whose agendas have been determined long in advance.

Prime Minister Miroslav Topolanek emphasized continuity when he addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg less than 24 hours after the no-confidence vote, saying the event would have "no impact" on the EU Presidency.

The Czech government's fall does not mark the first time a sitting EU presidency has undergone a change of government. Denmark in 1993 and Italy in 1996 underwent similar tests, without either instance having any lasting effect on the EU.

Executive Vacuum?

But the loss of legitimacy suffered by the Czech government, while not an immediate threat to the way the EU functions or the goals it pursues, will inevitably stoke the embers of long-smoldering tensions.

Larger countries are always eager for opportunities to advance and cement their influence on EU decisions. Old member states largely remain suspicious of the new, and there's an ongoing contest of power pitting advocates of an outreach to the south against those favoring closer ties with eastern neighbors.

Francois Heisbourg, special adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, tells RFE/RL that the Czech government's woes could result in a shift in EU decision-making to closer-knit circles of large countries and structures such as the 16 countries who have adopted the euro as their common currency.

"Most of the serious stuff is going to have to be done either in a eurozone context or in a G4-type context -- the UK, France, Germany, Italy, plus the eurozone -- and the [European] Commission," Heisbourg said. "This is not good news, and with the economic crisis getting worse every day, this is just going to make it even more difficult."

France, in particular, has seemed particularly eager since January to wrest some of the economic power away from the EU Presidency, at least for the duration of the Czech presidency and its successor in the second half of 2009, Sweden.

Neither is a member of the eurozone.

The Czech Republic also has the distinction of being the first ex-Warsaw Bloc country to lead the EU.

Busy Schedule

Sarah Hagemann, an analyst with the European Policy Center in Brussels, says that although the EU's run-of-the-mill business is likely to remain largely unaffected by the Czech crisis, there are areas where the lack of effective leadership could prove a problem.

"The day-to-day negotiations in working groups and [lower-level] policymaking will of course continue, but there are some important decisions on the table as well, where having a question mark over who chairs and how it will be done is a bit unhelpful," Hagemann says.

Preparations for meetings such as the EU-U.S. summit in Prague on April 5, the G20 summit in London on April 19-20, an EU jobs summit on May 6, and an Eastern Partnership summit on May 7 could all be affected.

In an early sign of potential trouble, Topolanek suggested to the European Parliament that economic stimulus plans of the type advocated by U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown are a "path to hell."

"I must say openly that the words of Timothy Geithner, Treasury Secretary of the United States of America, about a permanent action have quite alarmed the European Council," Topolanek said. "It's not just that America is repeating the mistakes of the 1930s -- creeping stimuli, a tendency for calls for protectionism, a 'Buy American' campaign, and so on. All these steps and combinations and -- what's worse -- initiatives for their permanent establishment, are a path to hell."

Topolanek went on to say that history has shown the failures of the U.S. approach, adding that "the spring EU summit showed that [a different tack] is the way to go."

Such pronouncements are likely to aggravate existing differences between the EU and the United States over the usefulness of large injections of public funds into the economy. Although considerable, these differences have seldom been cast in terms as uncompromising as those used by Topolanek.

The EU also faces European Parliament elections in June, in the wake of which EU leaders must decide who will lead the bloc's executive, the European Commission, for the next five years.

The Czech government's loss of legitimacy could also be exploited by political forces in the outgoing European Parliament, as Prague will play a pivotal role in clearing the legislative table ahead of the June elections.

The legislative storm in Prague is unlikely to threaten the EU's Lisbon Treaty, whose ratification process remains on hold until October, when Ireland is expected to hold a second referendum. (Irish voters rejected the Lisbon Treaty in June 2008.)

The assumption that the Lisbon Treaty is safe for the time being could be challenged, however, if the Czech Republic's notoriously euroskeptical president, Vaclav Klaus, attempts to exploit the domestic turmoil to scupper the ongoing ratification procedure of the Lisbon accord in his own country.

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