Can Sarkozy save Europe? This was the question being asked in France over the weekend, featured in big bold letters in Sunday’s Le Parisien. As France took the helm of the rotating European presidency yesterday, it seemed as if the only person who would confidently answer yes to that question was M. Sarkozy himself.
For the moment, the French president and the French capital were brimming with euroconfidence yesterday, with the Eiffel Tower lit up with the EU colours and stars, and with Sarkozy listing off a laundry list of ambitious goals that he’s had planned for this presidency for some time. The energetic and ambitious new French president has been urging a shakeup of European institutions for some time, demanding that the union focus on issues popular with the public in order to re-establish legitimacy and that it change its monetary policies to combat inflation.
But Sarkozy’s day in the spotlight was overshadowed by the tumultuous events around him. After the Irish ‘no’ vote France’s time on the EU throne will not be as Sarkozy envisioned it. Instead of strengthening and reforming the union, he will likely spend the next six months desperately trying to save it. As the president outlined his ambitious policy agenda yesterday, he was being upstaged by comments from Poland’s president Lech Kaczynski, saying that for him to ratify the treaty after the Polish parliament passes it would be “pointless”. Both Lech and his twin brother Jaroslaw, who was until recently prime minister of the country until he was voted out, have been deeply unfriendly toward the EU, while the new prime minister, Donald Tusk, is pro-EU.
A fight between Kaczynski and Tusk is likely brewing over this issue, but in the mean time Kaczynski’s tough talk reflects how nationalist-leaning politicians, particularly in Eastern Europe, are going to be able to use the Irish no as an excuse to block the treaty in their own countries, letting Ireland take the heat. The Czech president, who is also unfriendly toward the EU, has made similar threats, and its passage in parliament in that country is somewhat uncertain. Being anti-EU is a pretty solid vote-getter just about everywhere in Europe these days, and if populist politicians calculate that the treaty is dead anyway, they may start coming out of the woodwork to condemn it as dead, knowing they can score political points at home while suffering minimal diplomatic damage with their neighbours.
So now a second front has opened up in the battle to save the Lisbon Treaty, Ireland to the West and Poland and the Czech Republic to the East. And Sarkozy, who had wanted to focus France’s EU presidency on ‘peacetime’ issues, must now instead be the general to lead the Lisbon Treaty Battle. So what is his plan?
On his Blog, the Telegraph’s Bruno Waterfield says that Sarkozy held an off-the-record talk with journalists yesterday, telling them that France’s strategy over the next six months is to ‘isolate Ireland' and press ahead with the other ratifications. Under this plan the EU would refuse to renegotiate the terms of the treaty with Ireland and aim for a second vote next year, as occurred with the Nice Treaty several years ago. As for the rebellious Czechs and Poles, Waterfield says Sarkozy struck an aggressive stance during the meeting, saying that if the new entrants blocked progress there would be consequences for them, and that the Czech Republic would start its EU presidency January 1st in severe isolation.
Sarkozy is also scaling back his previous grandiose plans, fully aware that there will be little time to pursue them while he spends the next six months trying to save the treaty. After all, all of the big projects and initiatives he had planned would be pointless if the treaty fails to pass, because there won’t be a properly functioning EU to implement them. So he’s scrapped the “integration contract” he wanted to implement that would have required migrants to EU countries to sign pledges to learn the language of the country they were moving to and to make efforts to integrate fully. It also looks like he will cool it on his calls for a junior “Mediterranean Union” to operate alongside the EU. Instead, he is offering a host of populist initiatives that he hopes will turn the tide of public opinion back in favour of the EU.
As many have noted, the union has a serious PR problem, and it needs to demonstrate to the people that its purpose is to protect and strengthen them, not to exploit them in favour of big business and big government. So it wasn’t surprising to see Sarkozy using the word “protect” so many times yesterday. He acknowledged that “something isn’t right” with the state of the EU project, and he didn’t mince words about what is required to save the union from disintegration. "The European idea will be in danger if we don't protect Europeans," he said, adding that if the union doesn’t refocus its energy on popular issues that will demonstrably protect the continent’s citizens, it may not survive.
And the issues he will focus on during France’s presidency? They include stemming the influx of illegal immigrants, fighting global warming, softening the blow of high oil prices and rising food costs and combating inflation and the overvaluing of the euro. Each one something that has a direct influence over people's daily lives.
With his boundless energy, Sarkozy may just be the hero Brussels is looking for who could both rescue the treaty and lay the groundwork for restoring the public’s trust in the union. But with his notorious temper and “Bonaparte-esque” qualities, he could also make a bad situation even worse. Only time will tell what the next six months will bring.