The Czech Republic took over the rotating EU presidency from France on Thursday for a six month term that will involve dealing with the global economic crisis and renewed conflict in the Middle East. The motto of the Czech presidency is “Europe without Barriers”, expressing a wish to advance the free movement of people, goods and services around the EU. On January 6th the government will present its priorities which have been dubbed the three Es – economy, energy and “Europe in the World” which entails a three-pronged approach to the EU’s foreign relations. A delegation of the European Commission is expected to visit Prague on January 7th when an official launch of the Czech presidency will take place. On January 8 Prague will host an informal meeting of EU ministers.
On Sunday Czech Foreign Minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, is to head an EU mission to the Middle East to work towards a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli air strikes have killed close to 400 people in an unprecedented offensive against Hamas radicals. Mr. Schwarzenberg has been consulting the matter both with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and EU foreign ministers. The mission is expected to include EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and the French and Swedish foreign ministers. Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy will visit Egypt and the Palestinian territories on January 5th and Syria and Lebanon on the 6th in a bid to secure a peace deal.
In its new role at the head of the EU, the Czech Republic on Thursday urged further negotiations to resolve a dispute between Russia and Ukraine over gas supplies, after Russia said it would switch off supplies to its ex-Soviet neighbour. "The EU presidency and the Commission urge both sides and their governments to continue negotiations and rapidly reach a successful outcome so that gas supplies to the EU are not affected," EU president the Czech Republic and the European Commission said in a joint statement. "All existing commitments to supply and transit must be honoured," the Czech Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Alexander Vondra said on Thursday.
The reliability of energy supplies from Russia to Europe is likely to top the agenda of a meeting of EU ministers to be held in the Czech Republic next week.
In his New Year’s address to the nation President Václav Klaus said the EU presidency would give the Czech Republic an opportunity to influence developments in the EU. He said the country should strive for the EU to be a really democratic area, an area where political decision making is close to the citizens of the block and where politicians are held accountable for their actions. Mr. Klaus urged Czechs to participate in the June elections to the European Parliament because, he said, the results of the election could contribute to the search for a reasonable European set-up.
The Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolánek, has said he would announce a cabinet reshuffle on Monday, January 5. The prime minister made the statement on national television just hours after his government took over the rotating presidency of the European Union. Changes in the centre-right government have been on the cards ever since the coalition government suffered a humiliating defeat in October’s regional and Senate elections. Although the government has been able to push through plenty of reforms since taking office its razor thin majority recently crumbled, leaving it dependent on support from a number of rebels and independents.
The prime minister also announced that the Czech Republic would fix its euro adoption target date on November 1 of this year, saying that he had asked the finance minister to submit a euro convergence plan by October. Mr. Topolánek said his faith in the Czech economy had increased as the country had easily complied with the public deficit criterion for euro entry, keeping the gap at 1.2 percent of GDP in 2008, well below the 3.0 percent EU ceiling. The country’s eastern neighbour Slovakia joined the euro zone on January 1st of this year.
In his New Year’s greetings to the citizens of the Czech Republic European Commission President Jose Barroso said he was convinced the Czech Republic would do very well as president of the EU. Mr. Barroso praised the priorities of the Czech presidency as well as Prime Minister Topolánek's resolve to ratify the Lisbon treaty as soon as possible. He said the EU's primary task at present is to minimize the impact of the global crisis on the European market.
More than half of all Czechs fear that the global economic crisis will worsen their living conditions. Sixty-eight percent of respondents in small and medium sized towns said they were worried about loosing their jobs and 38 percent of respondents said they worried about their savings. The fear of being out of a job is strongest among qualified labourers and people between 45 and 59 years of age.
The cold weather is expected to continue for another week at least with day temperatures hovering around zero and nighttime lows dropping to minus 6 degrees Celsius.