PRAGUE — The rotating EU presidency made its way to the Czech Republic Jan. 1, making it one of the few potential power players in the gas crisis that gripped the continent last week.
It’s become a near-annual event: Russia and Ukraine are feuding over the price of Russia's natural gas, as well as who is responsible for cutting off the flow of gas into Europe, which travels via pipeline through Ukraine.
A large portion of Europe's natural gas comes from Russia and many EU countries have been forced to tap into their reserves since the start of the year. The current dispute comes at a time when much of Europe is in the grip of a cold snap — daytime temperatures in Prague, for instance, struggled to top 20 degrees last week.
Among the powers of the existing EU presidency is the authority to call together the heads of state of the EU members as well as arranging international meetings. So the Czechs will host thousands of meetings, conferences, and cultural and social events over the next six months. Few will be more important than high-level energy conferences being planned with countries from the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The aim will be to enhance the EU’s energy security, said Vera Rihachova an analyst at the Europeum Institute for European Policy in Prague.
"They'll try to mediate a consensus on energy policy in the EU," she said. They'll also try to "finish the market, to interconnect the EU."
Sadi Shanaah, an advisor to the Minister of Education on EU Affairs, said the current free-for-all policy is inefficient.
"EU states make bilateral agreements with suppliers, which is usually a disadvantage for the EU and for smaller states," he said. "We want to create a shared interdependency." He said the energy-related summits would focus on developing fuel supplies that bypass Russia.
Energy is one of three areas the Czechs plan to focus on in the next six months, which they have dubbed “The Three Es” — economics, energy and external relations.
On the economic front, the right-wing government in Prague will push for the free flow of services, goods and labor within the EU. The markets have been largely liberalized in recent years with some exceptions. Germany, Austria, Belgium and Denmark, for instance, still restrict the free-flow of workers from the poorer member states that joined the EU since 2004.
But Kalhousova dubbed this more of a political issue than an economic one, and said the Czechs were unlikely to win concessions during a period of economic crisis.
Finally, on external affairs, Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek is expected to push for renewed strengthening of transatlantic relations with U.S. President-elect Barack Obama. The war in Iraq, as well as other controversial policies of the Bush administration — such as Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition and torture — created deep fissures between Washington and Europe.
To the east, the government will try to get Croatia's EU bid back on track. It has been stymied by territorial disputes with its neighbor and fellow former member of Yugoslavia Slovenia, which is already an EU member state.
There are plans to strengthen the EU presidency — most notably via the Lisbon Treaty, which has been ratified by all but two of the 27 member states. The Czechs are due to begin debating the treaty next month. Chief among the many changes would be the implementation of a fixed president — elected by the prime ministers of the 27 member states — for a two-and-a-half year term, and a limit of two terms, explains David Kral chairman of Europeum.
Lukas Sedlacek, who lectures on European affairs, said, "The Lisbon Treaty would enable the EU to make decisions much faster. And that would make the EU a bigger player in world politics."
But even if the Czechs and the Irish ratify the treaty this year, as expected, a more powerful presidential post would not be implemented before next year at the earliest. This means that after June, Sweden will get its term at the helm.