Why Sarkozy Found Paris More Delightful Than Prague in the Springtime

I already noted somewhat obliquely (admittedly in a very tangential manner: it’s the link down at the bottom of that post to the Poland in the EU weblog, under “UPDATE”) that the Czech EU presidency just organized and hosted in Prague a so-called Eastern Partnership summit – intended to improve EU relations with various ex-Soviet nations still under the shadow of the Russian Bear, including Ukraine and Belarus – and hardly anyone from the EU side showed up! As a “summit” it was supposed to be attended by all member-state heads of government. But I guess the EU is not yet that sort of organization where they send burly men to fetch dignitaries physically when their absence at an official event is noticed (nor is it likely ever to be), for only one head of government was there: Angela Merkel. (And of course a head of state – namely Václav Klaus, but note the distinction – acted as host; more on that below.) No Gordon Brown; no José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero; apparently no Donald Tusk, either, even though this Eastern Partnership is something originally proposed by Poland. No Austrian Chancellor, either (his name is Werner Faymann, BTW), and indeed nobody higher there for Austria than her EU ambassador, despite that country’s multiple interests (indeed, you could say its very location) in the East.

And no Nicolas Sarkozy. What vital functions did he have on his official schedule yesterday, when that Prague “summit” was wound up and the Eastern Partnership agreement signed without his participation? Vincent Jauvert of the Nouvel Observateur gives us the details: merely officially taking delivery of a government report on diversity and attending a ceremony in honor of police killed-on-duty. Worthy affairs both, I suppose, especially the latter, but presumably also nothing that could not have been re-scheduled.

No, it’s plain that the French president had not the least intention of being there in Prague for the Eastern Partnership summit. And Jauvert helpfully supplies his list of five reasons for that:

  1. Sarkozy already has his very own EU-sponsored outreach program to nations just outside European borders. It’s called the “Union for the Mediterranean,” it was launched about a year ago, and it’s largely Sarkozy’s (or rather France’s) own baby, although it’s headquartered in Barcelona. It’s quite understandable how unenthusiastic he would be for yet another initiative of this type that can only divert money and attention from his own.

    By the way, Jauvert cites this as also being the reason why the Italian and Spanish heads of government failed to show up in Prague. I rather think that the jury is still out on that; Berlusconi, for example, justified his absence by invoking his new divorce problems, and that could even be true!
  2. Sarkozy and the Czech government don’t get along very well. This is clear. There were those quite explicity-stated doubts by French officials, faced with having to give up the EU presidency at the end of last year, as to whether the Czechs would be able to handle the task of taking over. (And were they, in the end?) There was that dispute about the French government allegedly urging French car companies to repatriate their manufacturing jobs from their factories in Eastern Europe – most prominently from the Czech Republic.
  3. Sarkozy does get along rather well with the Russians. And of course the Russians don’t like this Eastern Partnership idea at all.
  4. Sarkozy does not want any more EU enlargement – and participation at this summit could very well be falsely interpreted that he has softened that stand. (Think of the inevitable photo-ops that there would be, with him there having to smile for the cameras, like one big happy family, along with all those ex-Soviet country leaders.)
  5. This blasted Eastern Partnership is going to gobble up €600 million in EU funds! (That’s just what has already been budgeted – more is sure to be spent in the future!) Another reason for Sarkozy to refuse to have anything to do with it publicly.

This is all very valuable analysis. As for myself, though, I still prefer my original reason why the summit flopped, namely that by that point no one could take the Czech presidency at all seriously anymore. Take a closer look: that Thursday and Friday when the summit took place was actually the very period of the transition from the Topolánek to the Fischer Czech governments! It was the period of maximum confusion, of maximum lack of preparedness by most Czech officials as that brand-new government’s personnel were busy in the first place simply finding and settling themselves into their new offices!

How could the Czechs ever have explicitly and deliberately scheduled such a summit for precisely such a period? “Because they are idiots?” you might suggest. No, the Czechs are certainly not idiots, let’s have none of that; the idea rather was that the summit would have to be run by that part of the government not in transition – i.e. by the office of the president, namely Václav Klaus. Yes, he was in charge at that summit, and not only that but everyone realized ahead of time that he would have to be. And Václav Klaus is a quite unpopular figure in most European Union circles, not only because of his often-rabid anti-EU views (e.g. he has been hinting that he won’t sign the Czech ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, even though that has now been passed by both houses of parliament), but also, unfortunately, because of his prickly and know-it-all personality. Why travel to Prague to have to put up with that? After all (as I reported previously in this space) Barack Obama might have had to travel to Prague about a month ago, but he made sure ahead of time that he wouldn’t have to put up with Klaus.

One final note: there was also a missing head of government on the side of those “Eastern” states for whose benefit this summit was organized, namely Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus. But that should have been no surprise to even short-term readers of this weblog; as “Europe’s last dictator” it was remarkable that he was invited in the first place, and I also reported in this space how he was assured of a rather cold reception if he did come, which apparently convinced him that it was better not to head off to Prague in the first place.

CORRECTION: I have been informed that, in fact, the Polish head of government – premier Donald Tusk – was present in Prague for the Eastern Partnership summit. This makes perfect sense since, as I mention, it was all originally a Polish initiative.

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