Czech Republic takes over EU presidency

Friday, January 2, 2009

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- The Czech Republic took over the rotating European Union presidency Thursday, with the bloc aiming to see its new governance treaty approved in 2009.

At the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, authorities illuminated central Prague's giant metronome known as the "Time Machine" in the Czech colors of red, white and blue and the EU blue flag with yellow stars.

President Vaclav Klaus -- the most outspoken Czech critic of the treaty -- said the EU presidency would give the country a chance "to influence the activity of this important organization."

"It is in our interest to succeed in this role," Klaus said in his New Year's Day speech to the nation.

But Klaus is known as the country's most prominent Euro-skeptic, and in the past he has said that "a well-functioning, bureaucratic EU is not my goal." He has opposed the so-called Lisbon Treaty because, he says, it is undemocratic and would limit nations' sovereignty.

The last EU presidency under France featured efforts to tackle Europe's economic woes, and the next six months of Czech leadership will also involve dealing with the global financial crisis and overseeing implementation of a new $258 billion European economic stimulus package.

The Czechs will also lead an EU diplomatic push for peace in current conflict in Gaza between Israel and the Palestinians. Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg plans to lead an EU delegation to the Middle East soon.

But the Czech Republic also faces concerns over the Lisbon Treaty, a blueprint for EU reform that supporters say is essential for the bloc to work effectively.

The treaty has been on hold since Irish voters rejected it in June. The Irish said they would hold a new referendum. But the Czech Parliament, divided on the treaty, has postponed its vote -- which would be the last in the union.

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