In sharp contrast to its French predecessor, the Czech Presidency of the EU will push for an aggressive free trade agenda both at multilateral and bilateral levels during the first half of 2009. Prague intends to translate into action the slogan of its Presidency: 'Europe without barriers'. The Czech Republic, one of the most free trade-oriented member states, is determined to salvage the Doha Round, remove barriers to transatlantic trade and give a push to bilateral talks with emerging partners, such as South Korea. Prague will strongly support EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton's liberalisation efforts. However, its proactive policy could clash with the interests of bigger member states, such as France and Germany.

Reviving the World Trade Organisation Doha talks, launched in 2001, will probably be the first task for the Czech Presidency. But it is likely to be a challenging one. Following a push by G20 leaders, during the Washington summit on 15 November, the key players of the round had stepped up their efforts to resurrect the negotiations that had collapsed in July in Geneva. However, WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy's decision, on 12 December, to renounce a decisive ministerial meeting before Christmas has confirmed that large gaps remain. This situation seems unlikely to change in the short term and Prague has little leverage to convince reluctant countries, such as India, China or France, to make an extra effort.

The Czechs will focus their effort on the upcoming US administration. The Bush administration has so far been a key obstacle on the road towards a multilateral deal. Strengthening transatlantic relations is a top priority for Prague, which will try to engage President-elect Barack Obama, who has sent conflicting signals about free trade. Many observers expect the Democratic Congress and the new administration to be reluctant to engage in free trade talks against the backdrop of an economic recession.

However, the Czech Presidency also wants to engage Washington bilaterally by giving a boost to transatlantic trade, notably through the Transatlantic Economic Council (TEC), launched in 2007. "We want to give a new impetus to the TEC," said a Czech spokesperson. Less than two years after its launch, the TEC, which aims at promoting...

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