Page last updated at 14:35 GMT, Thursday, 1 January 2009

Czechs take over leadership of EU

Pendulum to mark EU presidency in Prague
Czechs seem to have mixed feelings about leading the EU

The Czech Republic has taken over the rotating presidency of the European Union, and immediately grappled with a potential crisis.

It issued a statement urging Russia and Ukraine not to let their dispute over gas prices disrupt supplies to the EU.

The Czechs assume the presidency from the French, and hold it for six months.

They face some daunting challenges, not least the global economic downturn. But some fear the presidency could be marred by domestic rows over the EU.

There has already been an ugly war of words between the centre-right government and the Eurosceptic President Vaclav Klaus, who bitterly opposes closer EU integration, says the BBC's Rob Cameron in Prague.

It is has led some to question whether, 16 years since the birth of an independent Czech state, Czech democracy is mature enough to lead the EU, our correspondent says.

The Czech Republic is also one of the few EU countries not to have ratified the Lisbon Treaty on streamlining the EU. While centre-right Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek wants to press ahead with this, President Klaus is a staunch opponent.

The assumption of the presidency was marked relatively modestly, with the Czech deputy prime minister illuminating a pendulum on a hill above Prague, accompanied by fireworks.

Vaclav Klaus
Mr Klaus likes to think of his life as a kind of constant dissidence against what he sees as the erroneous views of the majority
The BBC's Chris Bowlby

President Klaus, who has dismissed the EU presidency as "unimportant", did not have any special events planned.

But the Czech vice premier in charge of EU affairs, Alexandr Vondra, said the lack of hype may actually be an advantage.

"It's a better starting position when there are questions or misgivings. If there were great expectations and we were unable to fulfil them, that would be much worse," he told the AFP news agency.

Diplomatic forays

After Russia cut gas supplies to Ukraine on Thursday - while insisting exports to the EU would continue as normal - the Czech presidency stepped into the breach for the first time.

"The presidency and the [European] 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," it said.

Prime Minister Topolanek also announced that an EU diplomatic mission, led by the Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, would travel to the Middle East in the coming days to try to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Gaza.

Mr Topolanek said the Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, accompanied by senior EU officials, would travel to the region within days to address the conflict raging between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas.

The prime minister also said his government would announce on 1 November this year a target date for the Czech Republic to adopt the euro currency.

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