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Amid International Crises, Czech Republic Takes Helm of European Union

The Czech leadership inherits from the French presidency a host of challenges: a global financial crisis, renewed tensions in the Middle East, and the need to incorporate new member states to the rapidly expanding union, observers say.

But given its location in Central Europe between Germany and Poland, the Czech Republic may differ in some of its viewpoints from the European Union’s founding nations, according to some experts. Like other Eastern European states, the Czechs have been more supportive of the United States, whose opposition to the Soviets during the Cold War was widely appreciated, and Czech leaders hold economic views supportive of free markets that are more similar to the United States.

Czech officials have three main goals in mind for the next six months, which Jaroslav Kurfurst, deputy chief of missions for the Czech Embassy in Washington, called the “three E’s: Economy, Energy and External Relations.”

They will focus on ensuring better market regulation and improving integration within the European Union, making Europe more energy independent and exploring the use of alternative fuels, and improving relations with Eastern European countries, the Western Balkans — some of which are in various stages of seeking EU membership — and the United States, he said.

“We will be the lucky ones who will introduce the European Union to your next administration,” Kurfurst said. “We want to make sure that it will be the moment for reinforcing the message that the transatlantic relationship is a very, very important relationship in this world, and a force for good.”

Regional experts, like Robert Lieber, professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University, agree the tone of U.S.-EU relations may be colored by the more favorable outlook of America that is typical in the Czech Republic, Poland, and the Baltic states. These nations view the United States almost “an insurance policy vis-a-vis their more powerful neighbors,” he said.

“They see America in a very different light, far more positively,” Lieber said. “The importance of America is profound, and there is no resentment of American power that some French have expressed on and off.”

In addition to a different view of their American allies, the change in leadership may also affect the EU economic policies as well. The French tradition of big government and state intervention contrasts with the Czech philosophy, which is more supportive of entrepreneurship and less interested in massive state interventions, according to Lieber.

Czech leadership has also been skeptical of the “supra-natural” vision of one European entity; cautiously guarding its sovereign authority from too great a European Union.

But Czech officials stress they have no plans to radically change the EU to reflect their world view. The intention is to ensure a smooth transition from French power, and a fluid handover to Sweden six months from now.

“I don’t think you will see a really great difference,” Kurfurst said. “The presidency should be the one who is really serving others, and here you cannot present the Czech policy as the EU policy. The EU policy is the subject of discussion among member states. The task is representing them while you provide some leadership. Above all, it’s about serving others. We will try to do as good as the French did.”

Rather, the EU presidency may be an opportunity for the Czech Republic, which joined in 2004 and has a population of 10.3 million.

“We would like to follow the French steps, to show a country the size of the Czech Republic is able to play the big game, and be constructive and carry the presidency, and adding to the solutions to the problems of the day,” Kurfurst said.

The role of the presidency is to coordinate important meetings, and take a lead in negotiating compromises among nations and being the voice of the European Union.

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