Muted approval for France in the running up to the Czech Presidency

The French Pres­i­den­cy and its eval­u­a­tion drew a lot of atten­tion from the Czech media, the polit­i­cal scene and even the pub­lic sphere. The rea­sons were man­i­fold. First, the insti­tu­tion of the pres­i­den­cy itself draws atten­tion on its own thanks to the real and sym­bol­ic impor­tance of the post. Sec­ond­ly, the French admin­is­tra­tion stirred the still waters of Euro­pean pol­i­tics, and the waves have also reached the Czech Republic.

But impor­tant­ly, the French Pres­i­den­cy pre­ced­ed the Czech one. The Czech admin­is­tra­tion was in close con­tact with France already dur­ing the ear­ly phas­es of the prepa­ra­tion of the Czech Pres­i­den­cy and the com­mon 18 month pro­gram. The Czech polit­i­cal scene as a whole and the media fol­lowed these nego­ti­a­tions close­ly. Once the French Pres­i­den­cy start­ed, the eyes and ears of Czech politi­cians and the media were quite close­ly fol­low­ing it. The French Pres­i­den­cy influ­enced the for­tunes of the Czech Pres­i­den­cy: it affect­ed the agen­da to be dealt with by the Czech Pres­i­den­cy. The French Pres­i­den­cy also pro­vid­ed an impor­tant ref­er­ence point and a bench­mark for the prepa­ra­tion of the Czech Pres­i­den­cy and its pri­or­i­ties. For exam­ple, when the Czech oppo­si­tion (the Social Democ­rats) crit­i­cized the gov­ern­men­tal prepa­ra­tions of the Czech Pres­i­den­cy, it point­ed out the dis­crep­an­cy between the French pri­or­i­ties on one side and the too lib­er­al Czech pri­or­i­ties on the oth­er. The assess­ment of the French activ­i­ties (such as the medi­a­tion between Rus­sia and Geor­gia) by the Czech media (and oppo­si­tion politi­cians) was some­times accom­pa­nied by spec­u­la­tion about how the Czech gov­ern­ment and the Prime Min­is­ter would act in such situations.

The expec­ta­tions of the Euro­pean media and some politi­cians about the upcom­ing Czech Pres­i­den­cy were for­mu­lat­ed with the French Pres­i­den­cy in mind. The com­men­da­tions of the French Pres­i­den­cy were some­times sup­ple­ment­ed with wor­ries and mis­trust of the upcom­ing Czech Pres­i­den­cy. Some Euro­pean politi­cians voiced their wor­ries that after the suc­cess­ful and vig­or­ous French lead­er­ship, the EU is head­ing toward a cri­sis and a halt with the euroscep­tic Czech Repub­lic. The pos­i­tive assess­ment of the French Pres­i­den­cy by var­i­ous Euro­pean actors was used as a tool to bash the upcom­ing Czech Pres­i­den­cy. In autumn, the wide­spread sat­is­fac­tion with the French Pres­i­den­cy cul­mi­nat­ed in spec­u­la­tions that it may be extend­ed into the year 2009. Spec­u­la­tions that France may “steal our pres­i­den­cy” were per­ceived sen­si­tive­ly in the Czech Republic.[1] The form of the Czech Pres­i­den­cy (as well as a divi­sion of author­i­ty between France and Czech Repub­lic) was even dis­cussed bilat­er­al­ly between the French Pres­i­dent and the Czech Prime Min­is­ter at the end of Octo­ber 2008.[2] The Deputy Prime Min­is­ter for Euro­pean Affairs Von­dra felt that “It was indis­pens­able for Sarkozy to tell us that France would not steal the pres­i­den­cy away from us.”[3]

With­in this con­text, it is quite under­stand­able that the Czech polit­i­cal scene and media did not join the cheer­ful Euro­pean main­stream (led by France itself), eulo­giz­ing the suc­cess­es of the French Pres­i­den­cy. To be sure, the French Pres­i­den­cy was assessed pos­i­tive­ly by most actors in the Czech Repub­lic. Our point is that the open and pub­lic approval was some­how mut­ed because the suc­cess­es of the French Pres­i­den­cy were used against the Czech one.

The French EU Pres­i­den­cy was per­son­i­fied by the French Pres­i­dent Sarkozy. Thus, the assess­ment of the French Pres­i­den­cy as such might have been dis­tort­ed by the per­son­al sympathies/antipathies of indi­vid­ual polit­i­cal actors towards Sarkozy. The pos­i­tive com­men­taries about Sarkozy usu­al­ly focus on HOW he coped with the chal­lenges rather than WHAT was the result of the deci­sions and/or nego­ti­a­tions. Both the media and gov­ern­men­tal and oppo­si­tion politi­cians praise Sarkozy for devot­ing a lot of ener­gy and time to the presidency.[4] The reac­tions of Paris were swift and it was even tol­er­at­ed that Sarkozy some­times act­ed with­out an explic­it man­date (e.g. dur­ing the Rus­sia-Geor­gia crisis).[5] The Deputy Prime Min­is­ter for Euro­pean Affairs Von­dra, for exam­ple, remarked that Sarkozy real­ly “leads the Euro­pean Coun­cil in a very dynam­ic way. He speaks with­out notes […] He can make deci­sions, he knows compromise.”[6] Sim­i­lar­ly, the Prime Min­is­ter Topolánek com­mend­ed Sarkozy’s style and praised him for being active and for “action”.[7] Accord­ing to one com­men­tary, the French Pres­i­den­cy was char­ac­ter­ized by “hyper­ac­tiv­i­ty, an inces­sant pil­ing up of ideas, vol­un­tarism and pragmatism”[8]. Sarkozy’s glam­our and ener­gy seemed to over­shad­ow occa­sion­al reports about logis­ti­cal prob­lems and orga­ni­za­tion­al chaos dur­ing the French Presidency.

While both the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Czech gov­ern­ment and the oppo­si­tion politi­cians expressed their sat­is­fac­tion with the way Sarkozy man­aged the EU pres­i­den­cy, Pres­i­dent Klaus more or less open­ly crit­i­cized Sarkozy’s style and behav­iour. At the end of Decem­ber he sug­gest­ed that peo­ple like Sarkozy harm Europe and tram­ple the basic idea of Europe because they do not respect diver­si­ty and plu­ral­i­ty of ideas.[9] This attack, togeth­er with a skir­mish about the EU flag over the Prague Cas­tle, was part of a larg­er bat­tle between Sarkozy and Klaus fought through­out the autumn and win­ter of 2008.

Pos­i­tive assess­ment of the way Sarkozy man­aged the EU pres­i­den­cy pre­vails (with the excep­tion of Pres­i­dent Klaus). But media com­men­ta­tors and some politi­cians remain doubt­ful about the tan­gi­ble results of Sarkozy’s deci­sions and medi­a­tions. For exam­ple, the Czech For­eign Min­is­ter and oth­er offi­cials appre­ci­ate that thanks to Sarkozy, Europe was at least able to act dur­ing the Rus­sia-Geor­gia cri­sis. On the oth­er side, observers remarked that the result – the cease­fire between Rus­sia and Geor­gia medi­at­ed by Sarkozy – was too vague. Rus­sia inter­prets the cease­fire in a way that is con­sis­tent with the cur­rent sta­tus quo, imple­ment­ed by force.[10]



[1] „Ukradené“ předsed­nictví EU? (The ”Stolen“ EU pres­i­den­cy?), Lidové noviny, 10 Octo­ber 2008.
[2] It should be not­ed that despite the past crit­i­cism of the Civic Democ­rats against the EU, the Czech gov­ern­ment led by the Civic Democ­rats took the EU pres­i­den­cy very seri­ous­ly. Its engage­ment in Euro­pean issues (the EU pres­i­den­cy) is sur­pris­ing­ly high – it got fix­at­ed on the EU pres­i­den­cy as a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to influ­ence the EU, to sell ’Czech ideas’ and ’the unique Czech expe­ri­ence’ to Europe and to make the Czech Repub­lic visible.
[3] Evropa je Sarkozym trochu uhranutá (Europe is some­what spell­bound by Sarkozy), Hospodářské noviny, 11 Novem­ber 2008.
[4] Uni­jní předsed­nictví, jaké tu už dlouho neby­lo (An EU chair­man­ship the likes of which we haven’t seen for a long time), Hospodářské noviny, Decem­ber 12, 2008.
[5]One com­men­tary not­ed that Sarkozy was ”wag­ging the dog”. See Super­sarko se loučí (Super­sarko says good­bye), Lidové noviny, Decem­ber 27, 2008.
[6] Alexan­dr Von­dra in Evropa je Sarkozym trochu uhranutá (Europe is some­what spell­bound by Sarkozy), Hospodářské noviny, 11 Novem­ber 2008.
[7] Být akční? To mě naučil Sarkozy (Being active? Sarkozy taught me that), Lidové noviny, 13 Decem­ber 2008.
[8] Sarkozy září a úřed­ní­ci zmatku­jí (Sarkozy shines and offi­cials pan­ic), Hospodářské noviny, 11 Sep­tem­ber 2008.
[9] Sarkozy škodí Evropě, vzkázal Klaus na Ště­drý den (Sarkozy harms Europe, as Klaus said on Christ­mas), Prá­vo, 27 Decem­ber 2008.
[10] Uni­jní předsed­nictví, jaké tu už dlouho neby­lo (An EU chair­man­ship the likes of which we haven’t seen for a long time), Hospodářské noviny, 12 Decem­ber 2008.