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European leaders impatient for Swedish EU presidency

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10:31 CEST+02:00
European leaders have expressed impatience for the Swedish EU presidency to start after a troubled six months under the Czechs.

"We are waiting for the Swedish presidency impatiently, but we will willingly stand by the Czechs for the few days," German Chancellor Angela Merkel summed up recently.

Merkel is joined by Czech officials and many across the EU after a troubled six month tenure tarnished by the fall of the Czech government midway through the presidency.

Many will be breathing a sigh of relief as the Swedes take over on July 1st after what former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose centre-right cabinet was toppled in a no-confidence motion the at the end of March, has described as a "wasted opportunity".

He added the fall of his government had eroded the influence of the European executive and given a boost to those criticising the principle of the revolving presidency and the ability of small countries to take on the helm.

Topolanek had to quell doubts as soon as he took the presidency over from hyperactive French President Nicolas Sarkozy on January 1st.

"Our presidency has had its critics - indeed, it had some even before it began," Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kohout recently wrote in a forum on the european.voice.com website.

"We followed a presidency that was high-profile throughout and extended, some say, beyond its term of office," he added.

The Czechs had to tackle several hot issues from the start as the economic crisis began to bite, Israel attacked Gaza and Russia closed the gas taps for Ukraine and hence for several EU countries amid severe winter weather.

They failed to impress on the Israeli front but negotiated a political deal on the gas supplies and kept promoting austerity as a way to combat the economic crisis throughout their tenure.

Passions flared when Topolanek likened the generous US measures against the economic crisis to "a road to hell", in stark contrast to the polite tone used in Brussels.

The statement raised eyebrows throughout the world, but the Czechs' cautious stance also helped to quell the desires of countries such as France to protect themselves by blowing up the already ballooning fiscal deficits.

"Are we, like others new to the role, on a learning curve? Yes. Do we ask hard questions that some might prefer to duck? Yes. Are we the first presidency to have faced a political crisis at home? No," Kohout wrote.

If Europe was concerned about the Czech presidency before it even started, the biggest scare was the country's eurosceptic President Vaclav Klaus, known for his staunch opposition to the EU's reforming Lisbon Treaty.

But despite his often fiery statements against all things European, the president's worst excess was probably the likening of European integration to the communist dictatorship before the European Parliament in February.

Throughout most of the presidency, Klaus was overshadowed by Topolanek who also intervened to help push the Lisbon Treaty through both houses of parliament during the presidency, helping to unblock the ratification of the text.

Last week, the last EU summit held under the Czech presidency paved the way for a new referendum on the treaty in Ireland, whose voters rejected it in June 2008.

But Klaus will still have the final word as he is the last link in the Czech ratification chain and the treaty must be cleared by all 27 member countries to take effect.

The president, who has described the treaty as a "tragic mistake" and himself as a "European dissident", said last week he was in no rush to sign and would wait until the last possible moment.

The uncertainty over Lisbon and excesses such as the controversial Entropa artwork, a symbol of the Czech presidency that ridiculed EU countries, have added to the Czech government crisis that crimped the presidency ahead of key summits in May.

In his assessment of the Czech presidency, a high-ranking Belgian diplomat said it was "the most catastrophic one the EU has ever had... a flop, a disaster."

"We are counting on the Swedes to take control again," another European diplomat added.

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