Don’t worry, Mirek !

Article published on Feb. 15, 2009
community published
Article published on Feb. 15, 2009
‘My dear Mirek. So, your country has taken over the rotating presidency of the EU. You poor thing. You could have taken over from a Greek, mixed up in street brawls; from an Italian, haunted by umpteen scandals; or even from a German woman, stubborn and completely lacking in charisma. But fate saw to it that you followed on from me, someone who changed Europe, or perhaps the world.

This is how columnist for Le Monde, Robert Solé, imagines President Sarkozy’s letter to Czech Prime Minister, Mirek Topolanek, upon handing over the rotating presidency of the EU.

In France, a large number of television viewers keep abreast of the current political situation by watching programmes, aired before the news on Canal +, in which Spitting Image style puppets provide the relevant information. In this way, they avoid the journalistic mass at eight o’clock. The parody is often more informative than the sleek, suited and booted version. So, let’s follow the French example and finish reading the letter.

‘Your little country has adopted neither the euro nor the Lisbon Treaty. Your President is a proclaimed euro-sceptic and your coalition government is hanging on by a thread. But you can count on me. On Monday, I leave for the Middle East where I will resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict. Upon my return I will undertake various initiatives to put an end to the global economic crisis, which will leave me time to spare to eliminate greenhouse gases and stop global warming once and for all. Don’t worry, Mirek. The six months of the presidency will fly by. Cheer up! And do please pass on my regards to Mrs Topolanek (the likeable blonde for whom the Prime Minister left his first wife, author’s note). Nicolas Sarkozy, Honorary President of the European Union.’

Of course, Sarkozy is not the ‘Honorary President of the EU’, as this position does not exist. However, during the six months of the French presidency the omnipresent Nicolas established himself as the indisputable leader of the Union. In July, thanks to his efforts, the Mediterranean Union was created. In August, France reacted with lightening speed to the war in Georgia. In December, in a very short time frame, France managed to propose measures to save the European economy at the dawn of the global financial crisis. Despite criticism of their impact and appearance, the resourcefulness of the French administration was universally welcomed.

saro-mirek1 Sarkozy brought the EU back from the brink after the Irish voted ‘no’ to the Lisbon Treaty. However, the French President’s energy is not sufficient to overcome the ‘construction flaws’ within the EU. If, thanks to its President, France, which has traditionally been a motor for a united Europe, is now in a position to overcome some of the doubts and move the rest of the union forward (but towards what?), then the Czech Republic represents only the virtues and shortcomings which make it unsuitable to take over the rotating presidency of the EU. Even common sense and Švejk’s frank keenness of spirit, both admirable human virtues, are seen as ‘euroscepticism’ in a united Europe, even as ‘europhobia’.

‘Topo is a liar and an imbecile’

This amusing message was caught on camera in the Czech Republic in 2002. The problem is that it appeared on the screen of a mobile telephone belonging to Vaclav Klaus and is written about Mirek Topolanek. Today, Klaus is President and Topolanek is the Czech Republic’s Prime Minister and this unhappy partnership is now doomed to dictate the agenda for the Union for the next six months. Their contempt for one another is legendary despite them belonging to the same party. Klaus is the ideological father of the Civic Democratic Party, which today is led by Topolanek. The President who was born and raised in the capital makes no attempt to hide his lofty behaviour towards the Prime Minister. Klaus has an academic past as an economics professor, whereas Topolanek is an engineer from Brno who has worked his way up the political ladder.

Topolanek heads a fragile majority with only one vote. Moreover, they are divided when it comes to the Lisbon Treaty. The Czech Republic, along with Ireland, is the only country not to have ratified the basic document of the union, meaning that the country will be at the head of a union whose principal treaty it has not yet recognized. Whether the treaty will be recognised at all remains unclear. The two chambers of parliament were due to officially approve it at the beginning of February, but this has not yet been done. The socio-democrats who make up the opposition are in favour of the treaty, but oppose the installation on Czech soil of American radars for the antimissile shield project. A large number of Topolanek’s party members are welcoming the radar with the ecstatic pro-American sentiment often seen from some politicians in the East, while regarding the Lisbon Treaty with great distrust. The Prime Minister is trying to obtain a pro-European variable-geometry majority. There is talk of secret bargaining with the leaders of the opposition and of a ‘radar plus Lisbon Treaty’ contract to ensure that everyone benefits. Even if the treaty is approved, then the most delicate step still lies ahead: its announcement by President Klaus.

The unrecognised genius

At sixty-seven years of age, Vaclav Klaus is a favourite amongst his compatriots (60 % approval) and his stubbornness is well known. The Czech press published information from a secret agent from the 1980s outlining Klaus’ character: ‘From his behaviour and mannerisms it is clear to see that he considers himself to be an unrecognised genius. All those who do not share his opinions find themselves accused of being imbeciles and incompetent’. The Czech President is a self-proclaimed ‘dissident within the EU’ and is a frontline opponent of all the popular union theories. He heaps opprobrium on the ‘myth of global warming’, compares environmentalists to the communists of yesteryear and refuses to fly the European flag above the Hradcany. In August, Klaus named Saakashvili as the one responsible for the war with Russia, a truth which Europe only acknowledged a few months later and without having to spell it out.

In answer to the question of what will happen during the Czech presidency Klaus responded naïvely, saying ‘Nothing, because small countries don’t carry any weight’. However, in his new year’s message the President stated that ‘the rotating presidency of the EU is an opportunity to be influential’. This awoke the eurocrats from their slumber, making them question his intentions.

Due to his everlasting love of scandal and intellectual provocation, conformists assume Klaus to be a madman within Europe. But doesn’t it take a madman to assume responsibility for the noble mission of expressing embarrassing truths? The Czech President, and strategist of his country’s economic transition, defines the EU as being a so-called democracy, but in reality a union of technocrats. Such statements usually result in those who voiced them finding themselves isolated in the ghetto of europhobic radicalism on the left or right from where they can hear their words disappearing into the distance. However, Klaus’ power and past give far greater influence to such arguments, which elite conformists dismiss, but which many citizens share.

Evropě to osladíme

sarko-mirek2 The Czech government is using this slogan in an attempt to increase public support for Prague’s effort to complete this first rotating presidency with its dignity in tact. The Czechs were the first to invent sugar lumps. The Czech slogan ‘We will sweeten Europe’ apparently has a double meaning and could equally be read as ‘We will give Europe a taste of its own medicine’. This expression, however, is only being used by the Czechs, because the official, and desperately banal, slogan is ‘Europe without Barriers’. When originality falls victim to political correctness, it is a sign of something rotten in the EU. Language is as good a means of diagnosing the political situation as statistics.

Topolanek’s cabinet announced three priorities for the first half of 2009: the economy, energy and foreign relations. However, destiny decided to play a trick on Prague’s good intentions and presented it with three disproportionate challenges: the global financial crisis, the gas conflict between Russia and Ukraine and the crisis in the Middle East. This resulted in Prague having no choice but to change its agenda.

However, three points remain unchanged.

In spring, Prague intends to organise a summit of the Eastern Partnership, which will create increased cooperation with Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, Azerbaijan and, depending on the political situation, Belarus. The initiative’s objective is to subdue elite europhiles in the post-Soviet republics. However, civilising the EU’s neighbouring countries will most certainly enrage Moscow, which considers these same states, with their large Russian populations, to be on its patch.

At the end of spring, Prague will host the EU-US summit. Rather impressively, this time the Czechs intend to include all twenty-seven EU heads of state and government, giving each an opportunity to establish personal contact with President Obama and the new American administration. However, Sarkozy, Merkel, Brown and Berlusconi will no doubt find a way to get ahead of the crowd in Prague.

Finally, the European elections will take place in June – an event which is routine and at the same time of utmost importance to the EU’s long-term political plans.

The Czech presidency started with a blunder: the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Schwarzenberg, defined the Israeli operation in Gaza as ‘defensive’ to the great horror of the minority Arab populations in Europe. His declaration threw into a state of confusion the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which earlier in the same day had publicly expressed its disapproval of the offensive.

Last Monday, an ill-assorted group of peacemakers flew to the Middle East, uniquely symbolising the lack of tools and vision in the EU’s foreign policy. Three European envoys took the trip from Brussels: Karel Schwarzenberg, the Czech Republic’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bernard Kouchner (France) and Carl Bildt (Sweden). Javier Solana and Benita Ferrero-Waldner were to join them later. In all likelihood, the representatives from the Middle East regard this group of individuals with all the perplexity of the Look who’s talking characters!

All of a sudden, on the same day and off his own back, the indefatigable Sarkozy left to visit Cairo, Tel-Aviv and Damas. His voice has more of a chance of being heard. And so Mirek, really, don’t fret, this will all run its course.

Ivo Hristov

Translation : Alison Matthews