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Czechs may give EU a bumpy ride

Ballet dancer/Czech EU logo, 12 Nov 08
Ballerinas added glamour to the Czech EU logo presentation last month

The Czech Republic takes over the EU's rotating six-month presidency on 1 January, but politics is less than sweet in the land that produced the sugar cube, the BBC's Rob Cameron reports from Prague.

One of the delights of living here is gradually discovering the many things that began life in the Czech Republic.

There's the soft contact lens (Otto Wichterle, 1961), the sugar cube (Jacob Christoph Rad, 1841), the dollar (Count von Schlick, 1518... it's a long story) and the European Union (King George of Podebrady, 1462).

The European Union?

Well, sort of.

In the mid-15th Century, George (Jiri in Czech) of Podebrady, Hussite leader and King of Bohemia, dreamed up the idea of a confederation of all Europe's Christian powers, with France in the driving seat. Sounds familiar?

The member states would settle their differences by exclusively peaceful means - no more wars and conquest. There would be a common parliament, common institutions and even a common insignia (though no mention of yellow stars on a blue background).

George's idea - aimed at neutralising Rome and uniting Christendom against "the abominable Turk" - didn't get very far. It was dismissed by Pope Pius II and died, along with King George, in 1471.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus
President Klaus is a prominent critic of the EU's Lisbon Treaty

Now, more than five centuries after his death, George's vision has become reality.

"Frankly I would be quite glad if the EU eventually evolved into one supranational state," says Jan Kvasnicka, a 20-year-old economics student from Charles University in Prague.

"It is the best guarantee of stability in terms of peace. Also it could put through some of its agenda on the international level more effectively," he goes on.

"Though I don't think the French and Germans were inspired by Jiri of Podebrady when they came up with the idea of European integration after World War II."

Czech learning curve

If few outside the Czech Republic have heard of King Jiri, few outside Charles University seem to care about the Czech EU presidency.

"But look forward to what?" is the reply from the girl behind the counter at a cafe on the Old Town Square, when I try to ask about her country's presidency of the European Union.

She seems genuinely not to have a clue what I am talking about. She calls over a colleague, who is better informed, but also pessimistic.

Prague's Hradcany Castle and Saint Guy Cathedral
President Klaus refuses to fly the EU flag above Prague Castle

"It's going to be a little bit embarrassing I think," she says.

Why? I ask.

"Have you seen our president lately? Have you heard anything he said lately? He's not exactly the shining example of diplomacy."

Vaclav Klaus, the conservative Czech president, has strong views on virtually everything - climate change (not man-made), NGOs (more dangerous than communism) and the EU (all right as a free trade bloc, but that's about it).

The "Eurosceptic" President Klaus (he prefers "Eurorealist") has been campaigning against the EU's Lisbon Treaty, which the fragile centre-right government is attempting to ratify. The Czech Republic, alone among the 27 member states, has yet to even vote on it.

In November, Mr Klaus had dinner in Dublin with the controversial anti-Lisbon campaigner Declan Ganley, causing a minor diplomatic incident.

Mr Klaus later had a shouting match with a visiting European Parliament delegation, and has steadfastly refused to fly the EU flag over Prague Castle. And all this before the presidency even begins.

'Teenager driving EU bus'

The combination of Eurosceptic (though largely ceremonial) president, fragile government and divided parliament has reportedly caused some nervousness in Brussels, as France hands over the reins.

Czech Republic map

"I think the EU unfortunately has the right to be worried a bit about the Czech presidency," says Jiri Pehe, who was a political adviser to Mr Klaus's predecessor Vaclav Havel.

"This 19-year-old teenager is now taking over a bus with 26 other people on board," he explains.

"It's the second teenager, after Slovenia, but this one is rather unruly and problematic.

"Maybe the rest of the European Union would be OK if this particular teenager was driving the bus on an empty road with no intersections ahead, but I think we are facing very difficult traffic, with several complicated intersections."

Others think such concerns are unfounded and unhelpful.

"I don't think that those assessments are justified," says Roman Joch, director of a conservative think-tank, the Civic Institute.

"The Czech agenda is modest. It's about internal liberalisation in the EU and about the common energy and security policy towards Russia. So I cannot see any option for failure, because the presidency is more of an administrative function than an executive one."

Who knows what old King George would have thought of the modern-day European Union. Disappointed, perhaps, that it was founded by the Treaty of Rome, rather than the Treaty of Prague. Appalled, probably, that Turkey was even being considered for membership. But proud, certainly, that the Czechs are in charge. If only for six months.

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