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).