Gaza and gas give Czech EU presidency a lightning start

Karel Schwarzenberg, photo: CTK

The Czech presidency of the European Union could not have hoped for a more powerful kick-off. On the very first day at the EU helm, the government of PM Mirek Topolánek had to address two major issues – the escalating conflict in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and a natural gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine which could affect gas supplies for the European Union.

Photo: CTK
Thousands came to watch the New Year’s Day fireworks light up the sky over Prague. But for Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek and his government, day one of the Czech EU presidency was one of the busiest in months. The cabinet had to tackle two major issues on behalf of the bloc: the conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and the natural gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine.

After talks with the Ukrainian Fuel and Energy Minister Yuri Prodan in Prague on Friday, the Czech presidency said it would not interfere unless gas supplies to the EU are affected, which, Moscow has promised will not happen.

Karel Schwarzenberg,  photo: CTK
But dealing with the Palestinians and the Israelis will be much harder. Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek told Czech TV on Thursday he had set up a fact-finding mission, headed by the Czech foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, which will leave for the Middle East on Sunday.

“I have decided that we will organize an EU mission led by Karel Schwarzenberg. The delegation will include the EU commissioner Benita Ferrero Waldner, the EU high representative Javier Solana and the Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt. To ensure a smooth transition between the French and Czech presidency, we have also invited the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.”

Mirek Topolánek,  photo: CTK
Efforts for a smooth transition between the French and Czech presidency might be slightly jarred by the unrelenting activities of French President Nicolas Sarkozy who is going to extend his trip to Lebanon planned for early next week; he will also visit Tel Aviv and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. But Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek believes this should not affect Mr Schwarzenberg’s mission in any way.

“Karel Schwarzenberg will visit Cairo, Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Amman. The main objective of the mission is to prepare the ground for me and for Jose Manuel Barroso. We will try to moderate the conflict and to arrange a cease-fire. Unfortunately, we cannot yet rely on the new US administration but that means it’s up to the European Union to take over the initiative.”

Only a few days before the end of the year, Mr Schwarzenberg was the only EU foreign minister to condemn the rocket attacks from Gaza, and openly defended Israel’s right to self-defence. While the Israeli Ambassador to Prague Yaakov Levy has welcomed Mr Schwarzenberg’s Middle-East initiative, the Czech foreign minister has yet to discover what reaction his first mission on behalf of the EU will produce on the Palestinian side.