Members of the European Commission have visited Prague for the first major events of the six-month Czech presidency of the EU. The commissioners held meetings with Czech ministers, while the president of the European Commission, Jose Barroso, has been holding talks with the Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolánek, and the Czech president, Václav Klaus. The gas crisis and the conflict in the Middle East were among the main subjects discussed at Wednesday’s meetings, several of which took place at venues on Prague’s Kampa Island
The Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolánek, has said he welcomes the
efforts of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to deal with the current
conflict in the Middle East. He said Mr Sarkozy had built on the work
carried out by an EU mission to the region led by the Czech foreign
minister, Karel Schwarzenberg. The French leader announced on Wednesday
that the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority had agreed with a
Earlier on Wednesday the Czech EU presidency said it was deeply concerned by the rising number of civilian casualties in Gaza and called on Israel to open a humanitarian corridor and on both sides to implement a ceasefire.
The Czech Republic is one of several countries in Europe hit by Moscow’s move; it normally receives close to 80 percent of its gas from Russia. The news website idnes.cz reported that the country’s biggest gas supplier RWE Transgas had written to large consumers, warning them their supplies could be reduced in case of a crisis. However, the firm says it would have to be an extreme crisis for that to occur; it said it had reserves equivalent to 40 days supply, and was working to increase imports from northern Europe.
A Hyundai car plant in north Moravia is to reduce production to four days a week. Lower middle range cars will roll off the assembly lines only from Monday to Thursday for the whole of January at least. Hyundai is also halting plans to take on more workers and to introduce a second shift. A spokesperson said the moves were in reaction to the downturn on the European car market. The Hyundai plant at Nošovice was officially opened less than two months ago.
In the evening the European commissioners were due to be among the guests at a special gala event at Prague’s National Theatre to launch the Czech presidency of the EU. President Klaus, a confirmed opponent of further EU integration, declined an initiation to attend. Among those due to perform were the veteran entertainer Jiří Suchý and the Forman brothers, the twin sons of film director Miloš Forman.
The Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolánek, has said the European Union will on Thursday begin discussing the sending of international observers to monitor the supply of Russian natural gas through Ukraine. Speaking as the president of the EU, Mr Topolánek also said there would be an emergency meeting of EU energy ministers in Brussels on Monday, if the crisis sparked by the closing of pipelines carrying Russian gas via Ukraine to Europe was not resolved by then. The president of the European Commission, Jose Barroso, said in Prague on Wednesday that both Russia and Ukraine had given assurances that they would accept international monitors. The two countries have been locked in a dispute over prices and payment; Russian power giant Gazprom began reducing gas supplies to Ukraine’s Naftogaz on New Year’s Day before shutting pipelines completely on Tuesday night. The heads of both companies are set to meet in Brussels on Thursday at talks which also be attended by the Czech industry minister, Martin Říman, and European Commissioner for energy Andreas Piebalgs.
The Czech Senate has postponed debating ratification of the EU’s Lisbon treaty until the middle of February. A proposal to that end was submitted by Senators from the Civic Democrats and approved by the upper house’s foreign affairs committee on Wednesday. The Czech Republic’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, is due to begin debating Lisbon in a session beginning on February 3, with that issue expected to be linked to a vote on a planned US radar base in central Bohemia. The Senate has already given its approval for the building of the US base, which would be part of a global missile defence shield.
The leadership of the Christian Democratic Party is trying to block the
prime minister’s attempt to dismiss party leader Jiří Čunek from the
government. Mr Čunek, who is deputy prime minister and regional
development minister, was to have been one of several ministers replaced
within a planned government re-shuffle, but its announcement was put off
after the leaders of the two smaller parties in the governing coalition
asked for extra time to debate the proposed changes with their party
leaderships. The leadership of the Christian Democrats has now backed its
chairman, proposing that Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek, also of the
Christian Democrats, should be replaced instead.
The prime minister on Tuesday officially confirmed it had been his intention to replace Mr. Čunek, but his hands are now tied due to the government’s shaky position in Parliament and the fact that the Czech Republic currently presides over the European Union.
Close to sixty percent of Czechs do not want to see Communist Party representatives in high office, according to a poll conducted by the STEM agency. Half of the respondents polled said they would like to restrict the influence of the communists on the country’s domestic and foreign policy. Just over a third of respondents, mainly older people, expressed support for the Communist Party.
Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg who is leading an EU fact-finding mission to the Middle-East says a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip may take a few days to arrange. Mr. Schwarzenberg said that on Monday he had managed to speak with all parties involved and that things were slowly being set in motion, though he said a ceasefire should not be expected “today or tomorrow”. He said at the start of the mission that his immediate priorities were to arrange a ceasefire and get humanitarian aid into Gaza. Mr. Schwarzenberg is accompanied by the EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner. Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is on a separate mission in the Middle East and has been holding talks with leaders in Egypt, Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank in a bid to secure a peace deal.
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