British journalist and historian Timothy Garton Ash has written that the current crisis in the Gaza Strip as well as the crisis over gas supplies from Russia show the European Union to be “weak” and “divided”. He made the case in an article for the German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung, a little over a week after the Czech Republic took up the EU presidency. The historian criticised it was difficult to take EU foreign policy seriously, given divisions within the union, citing – as a case in point – separate simultaneous missions in the Gaza Strip. At the beginning of the week, one was led by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, another by the French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
An agreement on a European monitoring mission addressing the gas conflict between Ukraine and Russia is not likely to be signed on Friday, the Czech minister for industry and trade, Martin Říman, has revealed. He and Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek travelled to Ukraine on Friday for talks on how to resolve the continuing crisis. Details in the negotiations, however, remain. The EU – led by the Czech presidency – is working to try and ensure that monitoring groups will be deployed quickly to areas, for Russia to make gas supplies available again. Following negotiations in Kiev, the Czech prime minister will reportedly fly to Moscow later on Friday to meet with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Czech President Václav Klaus received US ambassador Richard Graber at Lány Chateau on Friday in connection with the end of his diplomatic mission in the Czech Republic. Mr Graber, who has been the US ambassador to Prague since October 2006, said on Friday he considered the lifting of US visa requirements for Czechs as the biggest achievement during his posting. A day earlier, he expressed the conviction that another project, the deployment of a US missile radar base on Czech soil, would be completed, as well as the hope that Czech lawmakers would approve the extension of Czech military units in Afghanistan. Mr Graber steps down as US ambassador on January 20.
Around 70 people protested outside the seat of the Czech government on Friday against Israel’s continued military intervention in the Gaza Strip, waving Palestinian flags and banners. The protest was organised by a local Muslim organisation. Vladimír Sáňka, a Muslim community representative in Prague, said the aim was to emphasise points the group wanted the government to promote on the EU level. Last week, some 200 people gathered outside the Israeli Embassy in Prague to protest against the military intervention in the Gaza Strip. Israel says it launched the attacks in retaliation for missile attacks by Hamas. Hundreds have now died in the conflict.
Czech gas supplier RWE Transgas has sent its representative to Ukraine to take part in a European monitoring mission aimed at helping restore deliveries of natural gas from Russia to Europe. Early on Wednesday Russia completely turned off supplies to Europe in a gas pricing dispute with transit country Ukraine. The decision has affected at least a dozen EU countries, some of which have declared an energy emergency. RWE Transgas reported Friday that gas flow within the Czech Republic was currently sufficient.
The leadership of the Christian Democratic Party has reversed a decision from earlier this week which called for Miroslav Kalousek to be replaced as the country’s finance minister. Now members of the party have indicated they want all of their ministers to stay on in the cabinet. The news comes just days before a cabinet reshuffle is to be announced by the prime minister. Earlier this week, he made clear he no longer wanted the Christian Democrat leader Jiří Čunek to stay on as the minister for regional development. But it is thought that replacing Mr Čunek could spur the Christian Democrats to quit the already fragile government. The Christian Democrats on Friday announced the forming of a new four-person team to negotiate with the prime minister on the planned reshuffle.
Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has said that those suffering from the struggle in the Gaza Strip need more humanitarian aid. He made the statement in Prague on Friday after meeting with the Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek. The EU has highlighted the need to help those suffering in the conflict. The Palestinian authorities claim local hospitals are overcrowded with patients and many residents are suffering from lack of water. The EU has decided to set aside three million euros in aid for the humanitarian purposes. Mr Stoltenberg said that like the EU, Norway welcomed the resolution of the Security Council on the Middle East conflict demanding immediate end of violence. Israel said earlier on Friday it would continue with its offensive. It began ground operations in the Gaza Strip in response to repeat missile attacks on its territory by Hamas. Several hundred people have died in the hostilities.
In related news, the spokesman for the European Commission warned on Friday that the earliest that deliveries of Russian gas could resume to EU countries would be three days. According to the spokesman, it would take 30 hours for initial supplies to reach Ukraine, once Russia switches on the gas and an additional 36 hours for supplies to reach EU countries. On Friday the commission said that there was hope that Russia would resume supplies very shortly. An exact date remains unknown, although some have reported that Russia could start shipments at the weekend.
Czech unemployment rose to 6.0 percent in December 2008 from 5.3 percent a month earlier, the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs said Friday. Analysts expected the jobless rate to grow as companies started to lay off staff in response to the global financial crisis. The number of job seekers ready to start work immediately grew to more than 335,000 in December from a little over 300,000 a month earlier.
The Czech presidency of the European Union has condemned the brutal murder of Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor-in-chief of The Sunday Leader newspaper, who was shot dead by an assailant in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Thursday. Mr Wickramatunga had regularly criticised government policy, the Czech news service ČTK reported. In its statement, the Czech EU presidency expressed regret over the loss of the journalist, who ranked among the most open critics of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. and expressed concern over recent acts of violence which it said went “against the basic principles of democracy”.
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