Czechs pass the keg to Swedes

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.

So the bureaucracy is sighing with relief at the beginning of the Swedish presidency, led by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. The 43-year-old economist-turned-politician will provide the EU with a comfortably buttoned-up presence and his serious visage could help him line up colleagues behind common policies.

The Swedes say climate change and the economic crisis are their top priorities, and the two problems are certainly not mutually exclusive. The Swedish government, already one of the leaders in pushing for aggressive environmental-protection measures, must persuade even the most cash-strapped member states to spend money protecting the climate On top of that, at the upcoming Copenhagen climate summit, the EU wants wealthier nations to agree to help defray the costs of climate protection in the developing world.

On the economic crisis, Reinfeldt and Finance Minister Anders Borg have already warned that member states should not borrow more money to put into their stimulus programs. Reinfeldt suggested further deficit increases could create new problems for the European economy. “It's exit strategies we will ask for," he said.

The Swedes also want an early confirmation of Jose Manuel Barroso for a second term as Commission President. Barroso, whose term officially ends in October, has no competition for the job at this point. It’s the position of Sweden and many other governments that it’s a waste of time to wait until Ireland takes a hoped-for second vote on the Lisbon Reform Treaty and gives a hoped-for “yes.” Opponents — many of them members of the European Parliament whose approval is required — say the vote on Barroso should wait until the outcome of the Irish referendum.

“We are aware this is going to be a difficult presidency,” said Sweden’s EU Affairs Minister Cecilia Malmstrom while outlining Swedish plans for the press. “The incoming parliament is now being formed, we have the outgoing and later incoming commission, uncertainty around the institutional framework with the possible new referendum in Ireland and we have the economic crisis and a lot of other very difficult issues.”

What Malmstrom is listing as challenges, Natalia Alonso, the deputy director of Amnesty International’s EU office, is calling “opportunities.” In the days before Sweden took over, Amnesty delivered to its embassy 28 pages of recommendations for how the presidency could be used to improve adherence to human rights. Alonso said the institutional limbo as well as the arrival of a new commission and parliament put Sweden in a position of influence. “We believe that the Swedish presidency can have a strong role in putting political vision and the rhetoric of the EU into action,” Alonso said.

And there might just be the possibility of some political fireworks, even with the cool Swedes. Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Nicolas Sarkozy are on opposite sides of the debate over enlargement, particularly regarding Turkey.

More on the European Union presidency:

Backgrounder: The EU presidency

Czech government "fired," EU presidency complicated

EU presidency left red-faced over artwork

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of a name.