French EU Presidency

The French EU presidency is off to a rocky start, which is saying something since it’s only a day old. The most spectacular headline is probably more of a hiccup than a crisis. Polish President Lech Kaczynski called pursuit of the Lisbon Treaty “pointless” in the aftermath of Ireland’s rejection, and indicated (although I’ve yet to find a direct quote) that he wouldn’t sign the Ratification Act already passed by the Polish legislature, thereby blocking Poland’s approval process. Kaczynski explained his position as a defense of the EU’s principle of unanymity, which he said Poland was too weak to do without, and called his approach “. . .a way to make sure the telephone number of the Polish president or prime minister is frequently used by Berlin, Paris, London or other capitals.”

But the move must also be understood in the context of Polish domestic politics and the uneasy cohabitation between the conservative president (Kaczynski) and the liberal government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who said of Kaczynski’s move “This isn’t the way to build Poland’s standing in the world.” Both Paris and Brussels downplayed Kaczynski’s remarks, with Nicolas Sarkozy noting that the Polish president has already signed off on the Treaty twice, at the initial negotiations in Brussels and later at thesummitin Lisbon that gave it its name.

Also of note is the resignation of French Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Bruno Cuche, which underlines the very tense domestic climate in the French defense community at a moment when Nicolas Sarkozy is determined to move EU defense forward.

Possibly the most persistant and longterm problem, though, is the ongoing brush war taking place between Sarkozy and the EU’s Trade Commissioner, Peter Mandelson. Sarkozy had accused Mandelson of having contributed to the Irish “no” vote by pursuing a negotiating position in the Doha Round that would undermine the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, of which both France and Ireland are beneficiaries, and which France would like to use its EU presidency to defend. Mandelson fired back yesterday in an interview with the BBC, saying that Sarkozy was weakening an EU negotiating stance that the member states had all already signed off on.

Tim King, at the Prospect Magazine’s France Profonde blog, criticized Sarkozy’s lecturing tone with the Poles, the ECB and Mandelson, and wondered whether linguistic and political factors contribute to the French approach to the EU presidency.

But if the consensus is still that France has got its work cut out for it, Hubert Védrine offers a refreshingly iconoclastic take in an interview with Le Figaro. He argues that importance of both the EU presidency and the Lisbon Treaty has been exagerrated:

Great things have been accomplished in the past independently of treaties: Mitterand-Kohl in the 80’s. People remember the images, not the treaties of the period. Ireland’s “no” must not be an excuse to do nothing. It doesn’t sink the French EU presidency. (Translated from the French.)

Védrine argues that the key to further EU construction (which he distinguishes from “integration”) is common policies that promote and defend Europeans’ interests, something that is possible within the currently existing institutional structure.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing Sarkozy is one of his own creation. For domestic political reasons, he raised expectations of what France’s EU presidency represented and could accomplish. The reality, as Védrine pointed out, is that the role doesn’t result in added powers so much as in added obligations.