Meanwhile, in Europe

Shortly before Barack Obama will be sworn in as president, the European Union will get a new leader as well -- straight out of what former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld would have considered “new Europe,” as opposed to established powers such as France and Germany that he famously dismissed as “old Europe.” That’s making Paris and Berlin nervous.

The Czech Republic will assume the EU presidency Jan. 1, marking only the second time a former communist nation has taken over the rotating six-month position (Slovenia held the job for the first half of this year). The country has closer ties to its Western neighbors than it did five years ago, when Rumsfeld was eagerly recruiting Eastern Europe to join the “coalition of the willing” taking part in the invasion of Iraq. Yet it remains deeply skeptical about European integration, government intervention to ease Europe’s financial crisis and the continent’s groundbreaking efforts to fight climate change. That’s not winning the Czechs many friends in Western capitals where such initiatives are top priorities.

If all that weren’t bad enough, Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek is in danger of losing his seat. His center-right party was routed in local elections last month, losing its majority in the upper house of Parliament, and now he’s facing calls for his resignation. So two months before Prague takes the reins of the EU, it’s not even clear who will be in charge in Prague.

The president of the EU has few formal powers, but the head of state of the presiding country does get to set the agenda for the European Council and has a bully pulpit for advancing new initiatives. With Europe’s financial markets suffering as badly as those in the United States, the post takes on added symbolic importance. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has led the EU since July, has been widely credited with keeping Europe’s markets calm by calling summit meetings and proposing strategies for countries that have adopted the euro. Given the strong economic ties between Europe and the United States, a less reassuring EU leader could worsen matters on this side of the Atlantic.

The Czech Parliament has yet to vote on the Lisbon Treaty, a set of reforms for the EU that must be adopted by all 27 member states, and it’s unclear whether it will be approved. Prague, meanwhile, has refused to accept the euro and is angry at Western European states that are restoring ties to Russia despite that country’s invasion of Georgia this summer. So although Obama might find that having the pro-American Czech Republic in the EU presidency will ease his efforts to improve relations with Europe, Prague’s ascension promises to widen rifts in Europe’s relations with itself.