Czech Republic takes its first turn at the rotating presidency of the European Union.
After taking over the presidency on 1 January, the Czechs moved quickly to address the escalating conflict in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The Czech foreign minister led an EU mission to the Middle East to try and broker a peace deal between Israel and Hamas.
The Czech government also pressed Russia and Ukraine to resolve a dispute over natural gas that broke out just days before their presidency began. The EU will continue to monitor the situation, which could affect supplies for the whole of Europe.
The Czechs, who joined the EU in 2004, are taking on the six-month presidency at a difficult time for Europe. One of their biggest tasks will be to oversee implementation of the €200bn fiscal stimulus package approved by EU leaders under the French presidency in the second half of 2008.
In its programme for the presidency, the Czech Republic explains that it will address the EU’s economic woes by increasing competitiveness and boosting confidence among consumers and small business owners.
Another priority is energy policy, seen by prime minister Mirek Topolánek as “a search for balance between the demands of the environment and the preservation of competitiveness and energy security in Europe”. Over the next six months, Mr Topolánek aims to push for continued debate on diversifying energy sources and new energy networks.
The presidency will coincide with elections to the European parliament. The Czech Republic will also need to begin appointing a new commission, which will start work at the same time as the new parliament.
The Czech Republic also wants to emphasize EU-US relations during its presidency. Mr Topolánek sees this as essential to economic cooperation and Europe’s security.
The Czech work programme also lists bringing the Western Balkans closer to the EU as a priority – the country will host an EU-Balkans summit before the summer.
“Europe without barriers” is the motto for the presidency. The Czechs are hoping that getting rid of obstacles to the free movement of goods, money, workers and services will enable Europe to hold its own in the face of global economic competition.