Barely a week before Barack Obama is due to arrive in Europe on his first official visit as US president, Mirek Topolanek, the Czech Republic’s prime minister, put the 27-nation EU on a collision course with Washington.
His attack compounded the confusion that has engulfed EU policy after the Czech leader lost a no-confidence vote in the country’s parliament on Tuesday, forcing him to offer his government’s resignation midway through its six-month EU presidency.
Mr Topolanek said EU leaders had been disturbed at a summit in Brussels last week to hear calls from Tim Geithner, the US Treasury secretary, for more aggressive policies to fight the global downturn.
“The US Treasury secretary talks about permanent action and we, at our spring council, were quite alarmed at that . . . The US is repeating mistakes from the 1930s, such as wide-ranging stimuluses, protectionist tendencies and appeals, the Buy American campaign, and so on,” he told a European parliament session in Strasbourg. “All these steps, their combination and their permanency, are the road to hell.”
US officials made no comment on the remarks. But the Obama administration says it took great pains to ensure that the Buy American provisions in the $787bn (€579bn) stimulus that the president signed into law last month were consistent with World Trade Organisation rules. It followed, therefore, that any attempt to make them permanent would continue to be consistent with WTO rules.
EU diplomats said it was the most extraordinary outburst from a political leader in charge of running the EU’s affairs since Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister, caused uproar in 2003 when he likened a German socialist member of the European parliament to a Nazi concentration camp guard.
Other leaders of EU member states, including Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, disagree with US calls for big fiscal stimuli to battle the recession. But they have couched their opposition in more diplomatic language than Mr Topolanek’s.
The Czech leader was speaking eight days before Mr Obama was due to arrive in London for a G20 summit of the world’s developed and emerging economies.
After the summit and a Nato meeting in France and Germany, the US president is due to fly to Prague for an EU-US summit, at which the Czech Republic will represent all 27 member states.
Relations between the Obama administration and Mr Topolanek’s government have been delicate in recent weeks because of signals from Washington that Mr Obama may reassess plans to deploy parts of a US anti-missile shield in the Czech Republic, a project to which the Topolanek government has been committed.
Mr Obama has vigorously opposed the view that the Great Depression was caused by too much spending, rather than too little, a view held by a small handful of rightwing economists.