Praise for the French Presidency and doubt about the Czechs’ ability to follow suite
In general, the French Presidency was assessed as a very successful one. Its ability to switch from the original emphasis on e.g. agriculture and defence, to Georgia and the financial crisis, has received well-earned praise in the EU and Finland alike. The final results and successfulness of the French Presidency remain to be seen.
Full speed ahead from the start
The Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb thanked the French Presidency for its activity in handling the financial crisis: “I am glad that the European Union took the lead in this debate. We should be thankful to the French Presidency for all the efforts it has put into solving this crisis. The worst thing a Presidency can do in times like these is to do nothing.” Minister of Migration and European Affairs, Astrid Thors, praised the French Presidency for taking the small member states’ special circumstances into account in the December European Council meeting. The French Presidency succeeded in strengthening cooperation and decision-making capacity of the Union. One of the most interesting things to follow up on, has and will be, the cooperation among the three biggest member states. Commissioner Olli Rehn acknowledged France for handling the Georgian crisis. According to him, the EU was capable of joint foreign policy this time, unlike during the war in Bosnia.
In a survey held at the beginning of January 2009, Finnish citizens mentioned economic stability and growth, as well as climate change, as policy areas where the Union is best able to exert positive influence. As these areas have been among those where the French Presidency was at its most active, it could be presumed that either the French Presidency has been successful according to the Finns’ assessment, or that the French have successfully picked those subjects with which they are able to do the most.
In Finland the French Presidency was heavily criticised, both in the media and in the ministerial level, for inviting only the largest member countries to the emergency meeting on the financial crisis. It was said that the united front of the member states was shattered and integration failed its first major test. The mistake was made, even though later in Luxembourg, a joint line was found. In relation to the Georgian crisis, the French Presidency got blamed for the pact negotiated by Nicolas Sarkozy, allowing Russia the right to act on Georgian territory until international arrangements have been made, thus putting the pressure on the EU.
Halfway through the French Presidency, the evaluations on France’s performance during the first part were mixed. Finns were mostly bothered by the lack of organisation and uniformity. The critique passed by Finns says a lot about Finnish mentality and their fondness of well-laid plans. However, the French Presidency was characterised by the unexpected. The Georgian war and the financial crisis demanded and still do, leadership and speed, which France and Sarkozy clearly showed.
The three crises
The French Presidency will definitely remain as a remarkable period of EU history. In the Georgian operation Sarkozy took on the leadership in peace negotiations. Russia preferred France as a mediator over the multinational organisations. Even though a satisfactory solution was not found for all, the operation can still be counted as a pro for France. Finland held the OSCE chairmanship in 2008. Thus, Finnish public attention concentrated initially on the actions of the OSCE and the Finnish chairmanship, with the EU largely overshadowed by this. Therefore Foreign Minister Stubb got most of the media attention in mediating the Georgian crisis and the work done by Sarkozy and the French Presidency was somewhat ignored. The financial crisis hit after Georgia. Sarkozy reacted quickly and hosted a summit to solve the situation. Albeit all did not go equally and ever so elegantly, the required activity was there. The decisions and events on the Frenchs’ term have far-reaching consequences that can only be guessed upon at this time. If the Europe was in want of a visible leader, then it was found in the French President.
The Czech Presidency is expected to build up the EU-Russia relationship, promote peace in the Middle East, get the Lisbon Treaty in effect and minimize the consequences of the financial crisis. It already had to deal with two major crises during its first few weeks as a president. Many have started to wonder if an internally weak Czech government is capable of handling major problems. In Finland, there has not been much speculation about the Czechs’ future yet.
 Alexander Stubb, Minister for Foreign Affairs: ”Who says world politics is boring?”, speech at the London School of Economics and Political Science, 20 November 2008, London.
 Astrid Thors, Minister of Migration and European Affairs: speech at FIIA seminar, 16 December 2008, Helsinki.
 ”Sarkozy: Eurooppa muutti minua”, Helsingin Sanomat, 17 December 2008.
 Survey conducted between 1-11 January 2009 by TNS Gallup Oy on behalf of the European Parliament’s Information Office in Helsinki and MTV3, available at: http://www.europarl.fi/ressource/static/files/dokumenttipankki/EU-2009-RAPORTTI_1.pdf (last access: 10 March 2009).
 ”Yhtenäisyys koetuksella”, Suomen Kuvalehti, 10 October 2008.
 ”Ranskaa moititaan kulissien takana”, Helsingin Sanomat, 30 August 2008.
 ”Nopeus ja kyky johtajuuteen Ranskan EU-johtajuuden valtit”, Helsingin Sanomat, 21 October 2008.
 ”Ranskan EU-johtokauden tulokset mitataan jälkikäteen”, Helsingin Sanomat, 31 December 2008.
 ”Tšekillä on monta EU-pähkinää ratkottavana”, Helsingin Sanomat, 9 January 2009.
 ”EU-puheenjohtaja Tšekki joutui koville heti kautensa alussa”, Helsingin Sanomat, 9 January 2009.