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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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”.
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”.
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”. 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. 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”. 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.”
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. In contrast, more attention was paid to the internal political situation of the Czech Republic. 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. 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.
 Frans Dijkstra: Europa verdient een Sarkozy, meent de Franse president, Trouw, 20 December 2008.
 Het debat over de Staat van de Europese Unie, Tweede Kamer, 31702, 6 November 2008.
 NRC Handelsblad: ‘Omnipresident’ Sarkozy wil Europa ‘gezicht’ geven (‘Omnipresident’ Sarkozy wants to give ‘a face’ to Europe), 17 December 2008.
 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.
 Ariejan Korteweg and Bert Lanting: De teugels gegrepen, De Volkskrant, 27 December 2008.
 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).
 Han Dirk Hekking and Martin Visser: Zonnekoning Sarkozy regeert de Europese Unie in vele gedaanten, Het Financieele Dagblad, 29 December 2008.
 Het Financieele Dagblad: Sarko’s leiderschap, 27 December 2008.
 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.
 NRC Next: Timmermans prijst Sarkozy over crisis (Timmermans praises Sarkozy for crisis), 15 October 2008.
 Stevo Akkerman: Klaus komt, wee ons Europeanen; President Tsjechië ziet communisme in EU, Het Parool, 20 December 2008.
 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.
 Stéphane Alonso: Na het Franse chic, nu Tsjechisch improvisatietalent, NRC Handelsblad, 31 December 2008.