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Czechs pass the keg to Swedes

Sweden acknowledges that its six months at the EU's helm could be "difficult."

Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf (L), European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (2nd L), Queen Silvia (3rd L), Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt (4th L), Minister for Enterprise and Energy Maud Olofsson (5th L) and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt (R) pose outside the Royal Palace in Stockholm as Sweden takes over the EU presidency July 1, 2009. (Bob Strong/Reuters)

BRUSSELS — Wrapping up its six-month presidency of the European Union, the Czech Republic handed off to incoming Sweden with a barrel of beer as the proverbial baton. Czech officials apparently chose to use this final moment in the presidency's spotlight to tell the world that their country has the highest per capita beer consumption in the world.

The Czechs passed the 42-kilogram keg from one rowboat to another on the Vltava River in downtown Prague. Spectators looked on in amusement and confusion, as the boats met in the middle of the river manned on the Czech side by a rather sheepish-looking Minister for EU affairs Stefan Fule and his better-known predecessor, the ever-cheerful Alexandr Vondra. On the Swedish side, the “torch” was accepted by the Swedish embassy’s charge d’affaires, Rolf Ericsson and the deal was sealed with a handshake that made both boats rock precipitously.

It was hardly the first example of the Czechs’ behavior in the leadership seat causing a raised eyebrow or two. Prague had promoted its presidency with a with a PR campaign that promised to bring more “sweetness” to the EU. The problem was, the word for “sweeten” in Czech can also mean something like “harass,” and the Czech government gave several opportunities to suspect the latter meaning was the one Prague had in mind.

  • At vocally eurosceptic Czech President Vaclav Klaus’ one appearance at the European Parliament, he provoked some lawmakers to walk out when he compared the EU to the Soviet Union.
  • Then-Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek characterized U.S. President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan as the “way to hell” one day after Topolanek’s government lost a no-confidence vote in parliament. The vote led to the replacement of the Czech government midway through its EU presidency and just a few days before Obama was due in Prague for the U.S.-EU summit.
  • In addition, before the Czech presidency ended — but after his role in it had — Topolanek was identified as one of the nude figures cavorting around a pool at scandal-plagued Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s villa.

It was all a bit too colorful for Brussels, even coming after the hyper-charged French presidency of another paparazzi favorite, Nicolas Sarkozy. The French president had missed no opportunity to cast doubt on the Czechs’ ability to provide strong leadership for the bloc. This led to numerous back-and-forths in the press between Sarkozy and Topolanek, who then had to provide the requisite images of chumminess whenever they were thrown together at public events.