PRAGUE The Czech Republic took the helm of the European Union on Thursday and tried to allay doubts over its ability to lead with a plan to seek a cease-fire to the deadliest violence in the Gaza Strip in decades.
The Czechs had raised concern among some EU states over how well they could follow France's initiative-filled tenure, in which President Nicolas Sarkozy tackled issues ranging from climate change to the Russia-Georgia conflict.
With Europe facing its possibly worst economic crisis since World War Two and an energy dispute between Russia and Ukraine, diplomats had wondered if the Czech Republic's small size and government resistant to deeper integration could meet the task.
As his first act, Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek announced an EU mission to work for a Gaza cease-fire. He said the plan was vital due to the absence of a major U.S. role as President-elect Barack Obama prepares to replace George W. Bush on January 20.
"The unpleasant thing is that we cannot count on the U.S. administration ... It is up to the European Union to take over the initiative," Topolanek told Czech TV.
"I think it's our main role in the coming days and weeks."
He hoped Obama would "not make the same mistake as Bush, meaning to push the Middle East problem aside." Israel has killed some 400 Palestinians in strikes it says are aimed at putting an end to Hamas rocket attacks.
Topolanek said the mission would comprise EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and Czech, French and Swedish foreign ministers. It will overlap with a visit by Sarkozy to the region on January 5.
The Czech presidency also urged further talks and a quick resolution to the Russia-Ukraine dispute after Russia said it would switch off supplies to its ex-Soviet neighbour. Prague also demanded Russia meet its obligations to the EU.
Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said he had expected difficulties from the start of the six-month presidency.
"We have to face up to it. It's a challenge," he told news agency CTK.
Topolanek also said he would announce a previously planned cabinet reshuffle, with "significant" changes, on January 5, and said his government would set a date for euro adoption on November 1 -- ending years of Czech resistance to a specific target.
The Czech republic's 10 million people have suffered only a glancing blow from the economic crisis that has wreaked havoc across the rest of the bloc's 495 million population in the form of plummeting markets, bank bailouts, and job losses.
Topolanek's minority centre-right government has dragged its heels on the Lisbon reform treaty, a charter designed to streamline EU decision making. The Czechs are the only member not to have voted on the charter.
Czech President Vaclav Klaus is also a staunch eurosceptic who has openly campaigned against the Lisbon treaty, although his post is largely ceremonial.
He took a non-combative tone in a New Year's day address, but advocated an EU where "political decision making is as close to the citizen as possible" -- a veiled swipe at Lisbon, which he argues will interfere with individual states' sovereignty.
"We do not have any alternative to membership in the European Union and it is unfair if somebody is trying to force us into an opposite stance," he said.
On the economy, the Czechs' expect slight growth next year and unemployment rising to around 6 percent, which could put them at odds with euro zone states fighting recession, or Spain, where some economists say unemployment could hit 20 percent.
(Additional reporting by Jana Mlcochova and Jan Korselt in Prague and Mark John in Brussels; Editing by Giles Elgood)