Event-driven presidency

Pri­or to tak­ing over the pres­i­den­cy of Slove­nia, the French rhetoric and pri­or­i­ties found some­what scep­ti­cal ground in the Nether­lands, espe­cial­ly in the press. The Mediter­ranean Union ini­tia­tive was pre­dom­i­nant­ly seen as a French hob­by­horse and when the deal was signed in July, com­men­ta­tors were some­what scorn­ful on its mod­i­fied ambi­tions. Also, Nico­las Sarkozy’s state­ments and actions with regard to the Olympic Games in Chi­na and the sit­u­a­tion in Tibet, were seen as a fair­ly rocky start of the French Pres­i­den­cy. But, as with many for­eign affairs mat­ters, the pres­i­den­cy was main­ly judged upon its cri­sis man­age­ment skills. When the Geor­gian-Russ­ian con­flict pre­sent­ed itself that sum­mer, the rapid and deci­sive action of the French Pres­i­den­cy was wide­ly applaud­ed. In the mar­gins, crit­i­cism focused on the absence of pri­or con­sul­ta­tion with all EU mem­ber states and the appar­ent room left in the agree­ment for the incom­plete with­draw­al of Russ­ian forces.[1]

The Geor­gian-Russ­ian con­flict was not the only cri­sis tor­ment­ing Brus­sels these six months; inter­nal crises were omnipresent as well. When the full and glob­al effects of the finan­cial cri­sis became appar­ent this fall, the ear­ly day inac­tion of the EU was fea­tured on the opin­ion pages of Dutch news­pa­pers. When the French Pres­i­den­cy swift­ly took the lead to estab­lish a com­mon Euro­pean approach, its deci­sive­ness and action was once again praised. With its efforts to con­vene a G20 sum­mit, France was said to have brought the ini­tia­tive back to Europe. Sarkozy’s sug­ges­tion to extend his pres­i­den­cy man­date on Eurogroup mat­ters was less appre­ci­at­ed in the Nether­lands. The Dutch Min­is­ter of Finance and Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Wouter Bos ini­tial­ly sig­nalled some cau­tious under­stand­ing of the idea, which evoked ample reac­tion in parliament.[2] Prime Min­is­ter Jan Peter Balke­nende set­tled the issue with a clear rejec­tion of any kind of pro­lon­ga­tion of the French man­date or the cre­ation of any addi­tion­al EU con­sul­ta­tive bod­ies and opposed the sug­ges­tion of a ’gou­ver­nance économique’.

Towards the end of the pres­i­den­cy, at the sum­mit in Decem­ber, much was at stake: Would France be able to bro­ker a deal on all press­ing issues at hand? To the sur­prise of many observers, an ear­ly agree­ment was reached on all major top­ics: the Lis­bon rat­i­fi­ca­tion process, the cli­mate and ener­gy pack­age, and the Euro­pean Eco­nom­ic Recov­ery Plan. In Dutch par­lia­ment, the pres­i­den­cy was some­what crit­i­cised by oppo­si­tion par­ties for putting much pres­sure on Ire­land and min­imis­ing the role of the Commission.[3] News­pa­per arti­cles wide­ly praised the ear­ly agree­ment reached in the dif­fi­cult nego­ti­a­tions on the cli­mate and ener­gy pack­age. Hero­ic sto­ries were told on Sarkozy’s per­son­al inter­ven­tions to bring the nego­ti­a­tions to conclusion.[4]

Relation management

Dur­ing the EU pres­i­den­cy, some shifts were observed in the bilat­er­al rela­tions of France. The ini­tial lack of enthu­si­asm for the Mediter­ranean Union by Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel, was per­ceived as dam­ag­ing the Fran­co-Ger­man axis. A shift was not­ed with regard to the improved rela­tion­ship with the UK. In addi­tion, Sarkozy was praised for suc­ceed­ing to over­come cleav­ages between ‘old’ and ‘new’ mem­ber states in the dis­cus­sions on the cli­mate and ener­gy pack­age in December.[5] Ear­li­er this year, Sarkozy was report­ed to have had affront­ed both Poland and the Czech Repub­lic with his com­ments on the mis­sile defence shields. Look­ing back to the French Pres­i­den­cy, the six month peri­od was also seen as a good way to repo­si­tion France in the world: “the fad­ing super­pow­er was back on stage”.[6]

In addi­tion, the impor­tance the pres­i­den­cy had attrib­uted to the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment was praised. Frans Tim­mer­mans, Min­is­ter of Euro­pean Affairs, pub­licly applaud­ed the atten­tion giv­en to the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, which he stat­ed was “jus­ti­fied and a good lesson”.[7]

Sarkozy’s limelight

Much of the press and par­lia­men­tary atten­tion giv­en to the French Pres­i­den­cy was focused on the per­sona of Sarkozy. His hyper­ac­tive per­son­al­i­ty and dynam­ic lead­er­ship style were wide­ly praised. Sarkozy was por­trayed as hav­ing lim­it­ed regard for Brus­sels’ habits and bureau­crat­ic pro­ce­dures: “he got away with it by achiev­ing a huge amount of results”.[8] This style might have been crit­i­cised by some for pay­ing too lit­tle atten­tion to the details and as being very exhaust­ing; the results achieved con­vinced many com­men­ta­tors that ‘size mat­ters’: in times of crises a small mem­ber state as EU pres­i­den­cy would not have been able to achieve as much as Sarkozy did.[9] The Dutch Prime Min­is­ter Balke­nende was quot­ed in the par­lia­men­tary debate by stat­ing that “the French pres­i­den­cy has force­ful­ly and vig­or­ous­ly tak­en the lead in the EU”.[10] Also Frans Tim­mer­mans, Min­is­ter of Euro­pean Affairs, praised Sarkozy’s lead­er­ship “demon­strat­ing the need for a Euro­pean Coun­cil Pres­i­dent as pro­posed in the Lis­bon Treaty.”[11]

Limited expectations for the Czech Presidency

Up until the first month of its pres­i­den­cy, not much atten­tion was giv­en to the Czech pri­or­i­ties, the three ‘E’s’: Econ­o­my, Ener­gy and Europe in the world. They are rel­a­tive­ly unex­posed in the Dutch debate. The ambi­tions are seen as rather mod­est and the Czech Pres­i­den­cy is expect­ed to play pre­dom­i­nant­ly a mod­er­at­ing role.[12] In con­trast, more atten­tion was paid to the inter­nal polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion of the Czech Republic.[13] Hav­ing to con­tend with both the euroscep­tic Pres­i­dent Klaus and the delayed rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the Lis­bon Treaty, the tim­ing of the Czech Pres­i­den­cy seems to have come at the worst pos­si­ble time internally.[14] In addi­tion, there has been sub­stan­tial media cov­er­age on the art work of David Černý in which var­i­ous EU mem­ber states suf­fered an affront. The pic­ture of a flood­ed Hol­land with Mus­lim mosques, did not pro­voke much com­mo­tion though. This fits with­in the Dutch tra­di­tion not to crit­i­cise art for polit­i­cal rea­sons.




[1] Frans Dijk­stra: Europa ver­di­ent een Sarkozy, meent de Franse pres­i­dent, Trouw, 20 Decem­ber 2008.
[2] Het debat over de Staat van de Europese Unie, Tweede Kamer, 31702, 6 Novem­ber 2008.
[3] NRC Han­dels­blad: ‘Omnipres­i­dent’ Sarkozy wil Europa ‘gezicht’ geven (‘Omnipres­i­dent’ Sarkozy wants to give ‘a face’ to Europe), 17 Decem­ber 2008.
[4] Jeroen van der Kris: Lof voor optre­den van Sarkozy op Europese top (Praise for Sarkozy’s per­for­mance at Euro­pean sum­mit), NRC Han­dels­blad, 13 Decem­ber 2008.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Arie­jan Kor­te­weg and Bert Lant­i­ng: De teugels gegrepen, De Volk­skrant, 27 Decem­ber 2008.
[7] Tim­mer­mans: hoe moet Europa er na de kredi­et­cri­sis uitzien?, avail­able at: http://www.europahoortbijnederland.nl/nu-in-brussel/timmermans-hoe-moet-europa-er-na-de-kredietcrisis-uitzien/ (last access: 26 Feb­ru­ary 2009).
[8] Han Dirk Hekking and Mar­tin Viss­er: Zon­nekon­ing Sarkozy regeert de Europese Unie in vele gedaan­ten, Het Finan­cieele Dag­blad, 29 Decem­ber 2008.
[9] Het Finan­cieele Dag­blad: Sarko’s lei­der­schap, 27 Decem­ber 2008.
[10] Voortzetting van het debat over de Staat van de Europese Unie, Tweede Kamer, 31702, 6 Novem­ber 2008; Ste­vo Akker­man: Klaus komt, wee ons Euro­pea­nen; Pres­i­dent Tsjechië ziet com­mu­nisme in EU, Het Parool, 20 Decem­ber 2008.
[11] NRC Next: Tim­mer­mans pri­jst Sarkozy over cri­sis (Tim­mer­mans prais­es Sarkozy for cri­sis), 15 Octo­ber 2008.
[12] Ste­vo Akker­man: Klaus komt, wee ons Euro­pea­nen; Pres­i­dent Tsjechië ziet com­mu­nisme in EU, Het Parool, 20 Decem­ber 2008.
[13] Eric Brassem: EU kri­jgt zwakke voorzit­ter; Tsjechis­che pre­mier behaalt Pyrrhus-over­win­ning op par­ti­j­con­gres, Trouw, 9 Decem­ber 2008; Han Dirk Hekking: Met Tjechië kri­jgt EU een lei­der die graag prob­le­men ontwijkt (With the Czech Repub­lic, the EU gets a leader that likes to avoid prob­lems), Het Finan­cieele Dag­blad, 15 Novem­ber 2008.
[14] Stéphane Alon­so: Na het Franse chic, nu Tsjechisch impro­visati­etal­ent, NRC Han­dels­blad, 31 Decem­ber 2008.