Topolanek's criticisms of Obama's policies could sour EU-US relations


MEPs were surprised by the Czech prime minister’s undiplomatic language, writes JAMIE SMYTH.

CZECH PRIME minister Mirek Topolanek yesterday condemned US president Barack Obama’s economic recovery plans as “a road to hell” ahead of next week’s G20 summit.

Subsequently, in damage limitation mode, Czech deputy prime minister Alexandr Vondra claimed at a news conference in Strasbourg that the comments had been misinterpreted and that Mr Topolanek had merely warned that the EU would be on the “way to hell” if it pursued fiscal expansion. Czech journalists denied that the comments had been mistranslated.

The tough comments are likely to increase EU-US tensions ahead of the G20 meeting in London, which is aiming to reform the world’s financial system. They also provoked renewed criticism of Prague’s handling of the EU presidency just hours after the Czech government collapsed when it lost a no confidence vote.

In his speech to MEPs in Strasbourg, Mr Topolanek criticised the widening US budget deficit and protectionist “Buy America” conditions attached to its trillion dollar stimulus package.

“He talks about a large stimulus campaign by Americans . . . All of these steps, their combination and their permanency, is a way to hell”, Mr Topolanek told a surprised European Parliament, unused to such undiplomatic language from a head of government.

“We need to read the history books and read with it the lessons of history,” said Mr Topolanek, who added that the EU’s biggest success this year was not to copy the US strategy.

The criticism from Mr Topolanek came just hours after President Obama appealed to other world powers to share the burden of stimulating the world economy. It reflects deep EU opposition to repeated US calls for it to spend more to kickstart the economy, but the blunt use of language could increase tensions in the run-up to next week’s G20 summit.

It has also shone an unwelcome spotlight on the Czech presidency of the union, already reeling from the no-confidence vote on Tuesday which will see Mr Topolanek’s role transformed to that of caretaker prime minister until new elections can be held after the country’s tenure as EU president ends in early July. Mr Topolanek attempted to reassure MEPs yesterday that Prague could continue to perform effectively as EU president, saying the vote was “not a tragedy”. “The Czech presidency will do its business as usual and I am sure we will cope,” he added.

Leader of the Socialist Group in the parliament Martin Schultz criticised Mr Topolanek’s “road to hell” comments, saying they were “not the level on which the EU ought to be operating with the US”. “You are a fighter, but so far you haven’t understood what the task of the EU presidency is,” said the German MEP in reply to Mr Topolanek’s speech.

France has repeatedly criticised the Czech Republic’s EU presidency for mishandling the Middle East crisis in January and for not doing enough to combat the economic crisis. There are now fears in Brussels and in other EU states that the rest of the Czech presidency could be undermined at a time of economic crisis.

“For the stability and image of Europe, it is going to become more difficult,” said Luxembourg foreign minister Jean Asselborn following.

“Day to day business in the EU is unlikely to grind to a halt because officials rather than politicians chair at least 90 per cent of all EU meetings,” according to Hugo Brady, analyst at the Centre for European Reform think tank.

“But there is no doubt the loss of political authority will hurt Topolanek when it comes to brokering deals,” he said, adding that the Czech problems would increase calls for the more stable EU presidency structure provided for in the Lisbon Treaty.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin also said that the collapse of the Czech government could make its job of negotiating the guarantees on the Lisbon Treaty “more complex”. “Now we have to see how things evolve with the Czech presidency and who we will be negotiating with.” he said.