Sarkozy Longer as EU President?

The leading Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad had an interesting item over the press conference given by Minister of Finance (and Cabinet chairmen in the absence of Dutch premier Jan Peter Balkenende, who is visiting China) Wouter Bos, which we can see in the article’s headline: Bos alludes to extension of French EU chairmanship.

From the very beginning of the European Union (i.e. from 1958; it was then known as the European Economic Community) the member-states have taken turns, at six-month intervals, at assuming the “EU presidency,” although the role is more-accurately described as the presidency/chairmanship of the Council of the European Union, which is the legislative forum for the member-states and usually the most-powerful of the EU’s component institutions. Naturally, the queue of countries waiting to serve their turn as president includes all EU member-states, and it was in the first half of this year that the first country from the great 10-country EU enlargement of May, 2004, had its turn as president, namely Slovenia.

The thing is, the second half of 2008 has proved to be far-from-normal times. First there was the diplomatic crisis over the conflict between Russia and Georgia, and now we have the international system of finance seriously in need of some restructuring. France is now EU President, and French president Nicolas Sarkozy has by all accounts done a credible job in responding to the worldwide financial panic. (His intervention in the Russian-Georgian conflict to secure the cease-fire was subject to rather more mixed reviews.) The comfort the EU has had with Sarkozy as point-man on that crisis may have much to do with the French president’s own personal qualities, but it also stems from France’s status as one of the EU’s major powers and its deep and capable governmental machinery. What if one or more of these grave problems had arisen during the Slovenian presidency: could President Danilo Turk and the Slovenian government have effectively handled the task of leading the EU response?

Of even more urgency is the question is “Will Václav Klaus (president), Mirek Topolánek (premier) and the rest of the Czech government be able to handle taking over the EU presidency as scheduled on January 1, 2009?” It will be the first time that country has ever had that responsibility, of course. In addition to sheer inexperience, the Czech Republic is a relatively small member-state anyway (10 million population); more serious is the fact that it does not use the euro (and probably won’t qualify to do so for at least a couple more years), so that Czech representatives routinely have found themselves not invited to the vital meetings of the Euro-zone that have take place over the past few weeks.

That is why the idea has surfaced – probably from French sources, admittedly – to keep Sarkozy and France on as EU president well into next year, until the beginning of the following year in fact, at least when it comes to financial/economic matters and, as Bos reported at his press conference, discussion about this is ongoing within EU circles. This would be quite a break from 50-year-old EU procedure, of course. As for one country handling financial/economic matters and another handling the rest, how does that work? Where is the boundary-line? Already Germany, the UK, and Luxembourg have indicated that they are not interested in any such thing, the NRC article (with no by-line) reports. The Netherlands, though, if Bos’ remarks are any indication, could find something like that acceptable – provided, however, that the continued independence of the European Central Bank from political influence is guaranteed, something that Sarkozy has tried to undermine in the past.

That any such measure would amount to something of an insult towards the Czech Republic (“Sorry guys: we don’t think you can handle the job!”) is one aspect to which none of the EU leaders who are discussing this plan seem to be devoting much thought. But all of that becomes understandable once again when you remember that the Czech president is still Václav Klaus, who is way down the list of the EU’s favorite national leaders. Long-term readers of this blog will recall that Klaus was rather alarmingly stand-offish about the EU even back just previous to the Czech Republic’s accession referendum in June, 2004. (OK, so maybe in the €S context “long-term reader” is more of a theoretical concept – well, except: Hi Mom! Anyway, if you want to check out my past treatment of Václav Klaus’ rather strained attitude towards the EU, you could start here.) He has adopted the same idea towards the Lisbon Treaty, which he plainly is opposed to: after the “No” in the June Irish referendum, he straight-out declared it to be null-and-void, which is something you’re just not supposed to say in polite EU society.

Topolánek in Danger of Toppling

But it’s not just Václav Klaus, or the fact that the Czech Republic is not in the Euro-zone that has the idea of an upcoming Czech EU presidency making people queasy. In the Czech Republic the president fulfills a mostly ceremonial role as head-of-state (similar to Germany, say, or the UK’s Queen Elizabeth) anyway, and it’s the actual functioning government of premier Mirek Topolánek that is looking shaky, according to a new analysis by Kilian Kirchgessner in the Frankfurter Rundschau (Everyone Vexes Topolánek). Regional elections held last weekend resulted in serious losses for his ODS party, and defections of ODS members of the national legislature from personal loyalty to Topolánek are increasing, to the point that there is a serious risk he will be replaced as party leader. A no-confidence motion against his government in the Czech parliament earlier this week turned out to be premature, but nonetheless Topolánek has even cancelled a visit he was supposed to make to the White House and George W. Bush next week to stay home and try to save his political skin. Maybe there was another, hidden reason for the cancellation, though – and I don’t mean Bush’s increasing lame-duck irrelevance; most friendly world leaders like to visit the White House and get that presidential photo-op no matter what. As Kirchgessner reports in his FR piece, Topolánek, having signed on 8 July the treaty to establish a US-run missile-defense radar site in the Czech Republic, may now be in danger of failing to gain the necessary ratification of that pact from the Czech parliament. Polls show that two-thirds of the Czech population disapproves of the deal; Topolánek’s ODS government went ahead and signed the treaty anyway, but a big part of the success of the opposition parties last weekend stemmed from the public’s unhappiness.

It fell earlier this year to little Slovenia to demonstrate that the EU’s new and small members could still be competent to run the Union’s affairs effectively as President of the Council, and by all accounts they did a good job. (Of course, they had few demands placed on them; and remember that Cyprus will take over the presidency in the second half of 2012! How are we feeling about that?) The Czechs, in contrast, look seriously in danger of dropping the ball for their fellow new member-states. Maybe Sarkozy would be preferable after all.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Comments are closed.