Active and productive French Presidency, fear of too Euroscpetic Czech president

Assuming the EU rotation chair on 1 July 2008 in a complex situation related to the negative outcome of the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty ratification, France held out hopes that Europe would emerge stronger at the end of the year, capable of dealing with pressing problems. Bulgaria also had high expectations for the French Ppresidency in the second half of 2008. Several publications emphasized that the two countries were united by common European interests and that the partnership between them is based on a reciprocal confidence and respect. The French Parliament was the only one to have ratified Bulgaria’s EU accession treaty unanimously. In Bulgaria, France as a whole is considered to be not just one of the founders of the European Community, but also a state with a long-term vision of the European project.

The visit of the Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev to Paris on 4 July 2008, was widely articulated in the media because this was the first meeting of Nicolas Sarkozy with a head of government in his two capacities – as President and as head of state of the EU’s presiding country. Journalists stressed that Nicolas Sarkozy had lent a shoulder to Sergei Stanishev by saying he should be “the voice of reason and progress” in Central and Eastern Europe.[1] The two signed an Agreement on a strategic partnership between Bulgaria and France. The document concerns the political and economic area, defence and armaments, security and migration issues; as well as culture, education and science. According to the Bulgarian Prime Minister, it is not a protocol agreement, because there is a concrete plan of action in all spheres.[2] Another outcome of the visit was the deal for buying two French corvettes for the Bulgarian Navy. Prime Minister, Stanishev, also introduced the President to the work of the recently established State Agency for National Security. The two agreed that a French advisor would be appointed to assist the new structure.

The European Commission’s report on Bulgaria’s progress under six criteria in the sphere of Justice and Home Affairs, as well as on the appropriate absorption of EU funds was a central theme of the meeting. Prime Minister Stanishev informed Nicolas Sarkozy on what Bulgaria had accomplished in reforming the judiciary system and in cutting down corruption and organized crime.[3] The French President highlighted that he would insist on a balanced European Commission report, rendering account of all achievements of the country. The statement kept up hopes that France would defend Bulgaria from the harsh criticism of Brussels.[4] The Bulgarian Minister of European Affairs Gergana Grancharova even noticed that one of the key events, which the government expected to take place during the French Presidency, is to put frozen EU funds back on track.[5]

However, reality proved to be different and far more sombre. The progress report, published on 23 July 2008, indicated a clear lack of results in combating organized crime and high-level corruption. The second document on the management and utilization of EU funds by Bulgaria was in the same light of alarming signals of incapacity to absorb the grants. The commentaries on these sore topics dominated the press pages during the second half of 2008 and overshadowed the expectations for the French Presidency and its achievements. The evaluations of Bulgarian political analysts sounded in harmony with the words of France’s ambassador to Bulgaria Etienne de Poncins that Bulgaria is not one of the problems for the EU, but for itself.

The critical tone of the European Commission was not met with disapproval by Bulgarians. The results of sociological surveys showed that around 45 percent of the polled approved the European Commission’s hard stance towards the country expressed through the report and European pressure on the government via financial sanctions. Meanwhile, however, around 35-40 percent claimed that criticism is well deserved but the citizens should not be deprived of EU funds because such shortcomings exist in other countries, as well.[6]

Beside the financial crisis, another crisis confronting the French Presidency with the potential to shake the EU to its very foundations was also in the focus of media reflection. The institutional paralysis of the EU and the ratification process of the Lisbon Treaty attracted the attention in the context of the Irish referendum. The negative Irish vote overshadowed ambitious French plans. Bulgarian officials took the view that Ireland’s ‘No’ should be regarded as a problem rather than as a crisis. However, journalists and experts described the referendum in the light of its role in revealing the gap between public opinion and political elites. Besides, according to media reports, the blockage stimulates the voices who plead for the concept of a “two-speed” Europe, which is against the interests of Bulgaria.

Comments on the implications, messages and lessons from the Irish referendum were widely covered in the media. Numerous publications offered viewpoints on the future of the Treaty of Lisbon. Journalists and experts were divided on this issue. Many considered the Reform Treaty crucial for the functioning of the EU and questioned the admissibility of 1 percent of EU citizens to block a project concerning another 480 million Europeans. In this regard, analysts proposed that the principle of unanimity in taking decisions should be revised. Another group of experts criticized the position of the French President in defining the negative vote as an incident. In their opinion the Irish ‘No’ puts under question the building up of Europe because of the crisis of trust between citizens and leaders.

Bulgarian media noticed that Ireland, as a member of the EU for 35 years, has been among the poorest countries of the continent, but has benefited most from joining the Union. For that reason there is a high level of support in the country for EU membership. Currently, the financial crisis intensifies the need for access to the single market of 500 million consumers.

Several publications pointed at the possibility of holding a second referendum in Ireland as an acceptable solution.[7] A similar approach was pursued with regard to the Treaty of Nice. However, according to sociological drills, many people oppose the idea. On the one hand, pressing Ireland to repeat the referendum may increase negative attitudes to the treaty. There is also a political problem: how to communicate that the people, who have made a democratic decision, have to vote again in order to give “the correct answer”. The French Presidency proposed a practical formula with the hope that it will be sufficient to enable a positive result in a new referendum. As part of a compromise package, every country would have a Commissioner and Ireland would have guarantees for its neutrality, fiscal independence and family law.

Experts assessing the French Presidency gave positive estimates of Nicolas Sarkozy’s reaction to the crisis in Georgia while emphasizing his words that the main aim had been to take responsibility for the country at EU level and not to fall into the same trap as in Bosnia, where the USA had taken the lead and Europe followed. In the defence sphere, French efforts were described in the context of the country’s reintegration into NATO.

Many analysts criticized the French Presidency for concessions on the climate change package. Their opponents noted that it had been a huge success because it was a product of consensus and had signaled that the EU would continue to take the lead on climate matters and to seek tangible commitments from the USA and other polluters worldwide.

Bulgaria and France cooperated in several spheres in the framework of the EU. They had similar stands on the Lisbon Treaty, the Common Agricultural Policy, the development of a single energy market, the future of nuclear power generation, and on the European Neighbourhood Policy. The two countries share the same views on preserving the current tools of assistance to the agricultural sector and rural development without losing the prospects for direct payments. As an external border of the EU, Bulgaria also had a positive attitude to the drafting of the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum.[8]

As a whole, the French Presidency was assessed as an active and productive one, which will be remembered because of the seriousness of the events of this half year. Three years after French voters rejected the constitutional project that plunged the EU into a long-lasting crisis, President Sarkozy fulfilled his promise to put his country “back in Europe”. France faced the difficult issue of finding a way to resolve the EU institutional impasse and to continue the process of reforms in the bloc.

In complete contrast to the high expectations for the French Presidency, the ones for the Czech mandate are relatively low. Experts and politicians questioned how Prague would helm the EU with the Czech president being Eurosceptic.[9] The media image of Vaclav Klaus is one of an outspoken critic of the EU and especially of the climate change legislation as a “silly luxury” that will aggravate the global financial crisis. According to Klaus, the Czech Presidency of the EU is an insignificant event. Journalists stressed that the President has refused to fly the EU flag over public buildings such as the Prague Castle.

Bulgarian media stressed that the Czech Presidency will be a crucial period for the EU with a view to such tasks as coping with the financial crisis, preparing summits with new US President Barack Obama, Russian and Chinese leaders, as well as holding elections for the European Parliament. Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanék should also tackle the issue with the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in his country. However, a burning question remains: Would President Klaus exercise his veto? Observers commented that, in the eyes of the Prime Minister, the future of the Czech Republic fits into the Euro-Atlantic rather than in the European perspective and for that reason for him the American missile defence shield is more important than the ratification of the Reform Treaty.

The three big ‘E’s (economy, energy, external relations), which sum up the key priorities of the Czech Presidency, are of great importance for Bulgaria. This applies also to the plan for launching the Eastern Partnership initiative. Bulgarian media also shared the expectation that the Czech Presidency would reconsider the system of financing in the field of agriculture, seeking to reduce differences in payments to old and new members.

 

 

[1] Standart News: President Sarkozy congratulates Stanishev, 5 July 2008, available at: http://www.standartnews.com (last access: 6 January 2009).
[2] See Dir.bg: Prime Minister’s visit to Paris, 5 July 2008, available at: http://novini.dir.bg/2008/07/05/news3168493c.html (last access: 6 January 2009).
[3] See Radio Bulgaria: Stanishev meets Sarkozy on eve of EC Bulgaria Progress Report, 3 July 2008, available at: http://www.bnr.bg (last access: 6 January 2009).
[4] See Standart News: Paris defends Bulgaria from Harsh Criticism, 5 July 2008, available at: http://www.standartnews.com (last access: 6 January 2009).
[5] See FOCUS News Agency: Minister Grancharova: We dared close down duty-free shops, 11 July 2008, available at: http://www.focus-fen.net/ (last access: 6 January 2009).
[6] See Radio Bulgaria: Bulgaria after the EC report, 30 July 2008, available at: http://www.bnr.bg (last access: 6 January 2009).
[7] See Europe.bg: Will Ireland put the Lisbon Treaty to the vote again?, 19 September 2008, available at: http://www.europe.bg (last access: 6 January 2009).
[8] See Bulgarian Ministry of Interior: Bulgaria supports European Pact on Immigration and Asylum, 8 July 2008, available at: http://press.mvr.bg (last access: 6 January 2009).
[9] See FOCUS News Agency: Next EU Presidency, 17 December 2008, available at: http://www.focus-fen.net/ (last access: 6 January 2009).