The Czech hosts of Thursday’s European Union summit with six ex-Soviet states are not happy bunnies. The list of the EU leaders who couldn’t be bothered to show up for the Eastern Partnership event in Prague, a highlight of the Czechs’ six-month EU presidency, was embarrassingly long.
Let’s take them one by one.
Neither José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Spain’s prime minister, nor Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s premier, went to Prague. Berlusconi sent an extraordinarily low-level representative – Welfare Minister Maurizo Sacconi. It was almost an insult.
The best explanation I’ve heard for Berlusconi’s absence is that, once he found out other bigwigs wouldn’t be at the summit, he decided it would be beneath his dignity to go. I suppose it was a sort of blessing in disguise – it spared us an embarrassing photo like the one at the April G20 summit in London, where Berlusconi squeezed his beaming face between Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev.
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France stayed away from Prague, sending Prime Minister François Fillon in his place. Some think this was a tit-for-tat gesture prompted by the fact that Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek didn’t go to Paris last July for the launch of Sarkozy’s pet EU project, the Union for the Mediterranean.
Also absent from the Eastern Partnership “summit” – actually, let’s be honest and call it a “meeting” – were the leaders of Austria, Cyprus, Lithuania, Malta and Portugal. On the other side of the fence, the presidents of Belarus and Moldova weren’t there.
But the most glaring no-show of all was Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the UK. Foreign Secretary David Miliband went to Prague instead. Brown’s absence really stuck in the throats of the Czechs. In private, one embittered minister in Topolanek’s outgoing government used truly unprintable language to condemn Brown.
You see, the UK is supposed to be the big friend of the EU’s new member-states in central and eastern Europe. It is supposed to be the country most supportive of EU enlargement. Even if EU membership is a long way off or may never happen for countries such as Ukraine, the UK is supposed, at the very least, to favour closer relations with them.
You have to feel sorry for the Czechs. Perhaps someone should remind them that the UK’s attitude to eastern Europe and the EU has always been pretty cynical. The British have been consistent supporters of enlargement because a bigger EU, so they think, buries the nightmare of an ever more centralised EU ruled from Brussels.
In fact, to bury this nightmare is to fight yesterday’s war. There isn’t going to be an ever more centralised EU ruled from Brussels. This became clear between 2004 and 2007, when the EU expanded from a 15-nation group of mainly western European countries to a 27-nation bloc stretching across the entire continent .
Brown should have gone to Prague. Politically, it would have cost him nothing. It might even have won him some friends in useful places.