A global success with a few weaknesses

Belgium
Centre d’étude de la vie politique, Université libre de Bruxelles
 
The French Presidency was overwhelmingly considered a success, mainly because of the charismatic French President Sarkozy, who was largely covered by the press.[1] The Czech Presidency in comparison is debated less and the expectations are generally rather low and ambiguous. The French Presidency was globally associated on the one hand with three major “dossier” and on the other hand, with the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy.
 
First of all, the three main “dossiers” highlighted during the semester were defense policy, climate and energy, and Congo. Concerning the defense policy, it was recognized as a priority for the French Presidency, but that was considered as far too ambitious.[2] Moreover, the Belgian political elite were rather divided on that area. Some parties, such as the Flemish-speaking socialists (SPA-VL.Pro) consider that defense is not a priority for many member states and certainly not a priority for Belgium.[3] While others, such as the French-speaking liberals (MR), claimed that the EU should progress in terms of a common defense policy.[4]
 
Climate and energy package
 
Second, the climate and energy package, is very important for Belgium. During his bilateral talks with the French Prime Minister Fillon and the French President Sarkozy, the Belgian Prime Minister Leterme highly stressed that an agreement in December was essential. He also stated that although Belgium agrees with the general objectives of the package, it should be balanced, and the effort should be equally shared among the member states. He also claimed that the package will cost 0.7 percent of Belgium gross domestic product (GDP), which is above the EU average (0.45 percent of the GDP), justifying thereby the preservation of the exoneration of the regime.[5] Before the European Council of December, the Prime Minister repeated the determination of Belgium to reach an agreement.[6] On the national scene, he faced some criticism from the Belgian Greens who think the principle and ambitions of Europe on that issue are welcomed, but the final agreement remains minimal to cope with the urgency of climate change.[7] The press stressed the difficulties and potential obstacles during the negotiations: the highly diverse positions of the 27 member states would make it harder to decide how to share the national efforts of the member states in order to fight climate change. Moreover, the final agreement was rather badly evaluated by the media, as the package was seen as weakened by the too numerous concessions.[8]
 
Congo
 
The last issue was the potential EU mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was extensively covered by the national media as Congo is a former colony, and has always been a sensitive question for Belgium. The alarming information on the situation of East Congo created a lot of political reactions and some of them concerned a more important involvement of the EU in the conflict as Belgium cannot solve the problem alone. The option of providing European troops, via the Battle groups structure, was debated in the Federal Parliament with Javier Solana, the EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy.[9] Moreover, the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Karel De Gucht, insisted several times to send an EU mission to the region to support the United Nation’s efforts. Finally, there was no consensus among EU member states, a situation that was “deplored” by Karel De Gucht who felt isolated among his EU colleagues.[10]
 
Evaluation of the French Presidency
 
Concerning the overall evaluation of the French Presidency, it was largely considered as a success. The Prime Minister was deeply satisfied with the French Presidency, that he described as “of high quality”, especially with the climate and energy package, the handling of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and the reaction during the financial crisis.[11] The journalists frequently referred to the “Sarko show” as an arrogant but efficient style of managing the EU.[12] They stressed the many concrete achievements of the Presidency such as the management of the Georgia crisis, the climate and energy package, the progress towards a Union for the Mediterranean as well as in asylum and immigration policy, the revision of the Eurovignette (road charging) Directive, the Erika III package and the strengthening of the EU military capacities. They also emphasized the benefits of the French Presidency for the EU, its future and its institutions: the EU achieved to appear strong and united under ‘Super Sarko’ as he personalized the Presidency, was very active and demonstrated the importance of the EU as a diplomatic power.[13]
 
However, some weaknesses were also pointed out. The energy-climate package was seen as weakened by too many concessions; the French Presidency was considered as too tolerant and compromising with Ireland on the Lisbon treaty. There was no progress towards a reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the bilateral relations with China deteriorated. Although some journalists can see the weaknesses as inherent in the search of any compromise, the Presidency was also judged on the basis of Nicolas Sarkozy’s personality. He was considered as too imperial, omnipresent and the coordination with the other member states was insufficient. The excess of presidentialization of the EU regime was perceived as a major threat to the institutional equilibrium in the EU, through a potential weakening of the European Commission as a central political institution.[14]
 
Despite these few negative elements, the French Presidency was thus considered as a success.
 
Czech Presidency
 
After this positive presidency, the expectations for the Czech Republic are, in comparison, rather low. It is largely stressed that 2009 is a year of latency with the European Parliament elections and the composition of a new Commission.[15]
 
The three main priorities: economy, energy and Europe in the world (so-called 3 ‘E’) were welcomed as they correspond to the ‘news’, i.e. the financial crisis, the relations between Ukraine and Russia and the conflict in the Middle East. Moreover, the theme of the Czech Presidency, “Europe without barriers”, is seen as a good symbol to refer to two important European anniversaries (the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 5th anniversary of the largest EU enlargement).[16]
 
But two main potential obstacles are pointed out: the size of the country and its President. Indeed, the Czech Republic is a small country,[17] and some consider it can be a weakness in international negotiations, particularly with Russia.[18] Second, the personality of Václav Klaus is seen as the main potential ‘problem’ for this Presidency. He is indeed presented as an ultra-liberal, eurosceptic who likes provocation which can affect the progress or evaluation of the Czech Presidency.[19] Some journalists even stated that the Czech Republic will have to try to have a successful presidency despite its President.[20] However, it is worth noticing that the French Presidency made the task more difficult through a certain stigmatization of the following EU presidencies.[21]




[1] See Le Soir, 17 December 2008, available at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 12 February 2009).


[2] See Le Soir, 16 December 2008, available at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 12 February 2009).


[3] Les priorités de la Présidence française de l’Union européenne, Report realized for the Federal Advice Committee in charge of European Affairs, 18 November 2008, Document 1593/001 (Chamber) and 4-984/1 (Senate).


[4] Document 1593/001 (Chamber) and 4-984/1 (Senate), «Les priorités de la Présidence française de l’Union européenne», Report realized for the Federal Advice Committee in charge of European Affairs, 18/11/08; Ibid.


[5] Le Conseil européen de Bruxelles. 15 et 16 octobre 2008, Report realized for the Federal Advice Committee in charge of European Affairs, 27 November 2008, Document 1616/001(Chamber) and 4-0985/1 (Senate).


[6] Ibid.


[7] Ibid.


[8] See De Standaard, 11 December 2008, available at: www.standaard.be (last access: 12 February 2009), Le Soir, 01 December 2008, 04 December 2008, 11 December 2008, 12 December 2008, 13 December 2008, available at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 12 February 2009); Le Vif l’Express, 11 December 2008, available at: www.levif.be (last access: 12 February 2009); La libre Belgique, 12 December 2008, 09 January 2009, available at: www.lalibre.be (last access: 12 February 2009).


[9] Audition of Javier Solana in the Committee for External Relations and Defense and the Federal Advice Committee in charge of European Affairs”, report realized for the Federal Advice Committee in charge of European Affairs, 25 November 2008, Report CRIV 52 COM 378 (Chamber).


[10] See Le Soir, 08 December 2008, available at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 12 February 2009); Knack, 07 December 2008, 08 December 2008, 12 December 2008, available at: www.knack.be (last access: 12 February 2009); Le vif l’Express, 31 October 2008, 10 December 2008, available at: www.levif.be (last access: 12 February 2009); De Standaard, 12 December 2008, available at: www.standaard.be (last access: 12 February 2009); De Morgen, 12 December 2008, available at: www.demorgen.be (last access: 12 February 2009).


[11] See Le Soir, 13 December 2008, available at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 12 February 2009).


[12] See La libre Belgique, 13 December 2008, available at: www.lalibre.be (last access: 12 February 2009).


[13] See La libre Belgique, 13 December 2008, 21 December 2008, 29 December 2008, available at: www.lalibre.be (last access: 12 February 2009).; Le Soir, 04 November 2008, 16 December 2008, 17 December 2008, available at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 12 February 2009).


[14] See Le Soir, 13 December 2008, 16 December 2008, available at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 12 February 2009); La libre Belgique, 29 December 2008, available at: www.lalibre.be (last access: 12 February 2009); Le vif l’Express, 06 January 2009, available at: www.levif.be (last access: 12 February 2009).


[15] See Le Vif l’Express, 31 December 2008, available at: www.levif.be (last access: 12 February 2009).


[16] La libre Belgique, 01 January 2009, 07 January 2009, available at: www.lalibre.be (last access: 12 February 2009); Le Vif l’Express, 31 December 2008, available at: www.levif.be (last access: 12 February 2009).


[17] The lack of adequate preparation and of professionalisation of political elites in the new member states were also pointed out. See Face à l’info, La Première (radio station), 06 January 2009, available at: http://old.rtbf.be/rtbf_2000/bin/view_something.cgi?id=0160995_sac&menu=... (last access: 12 February 2009).


[18] See La libre Belgique, 30December 2008, available at: www.lalibre.be (last access: 12 February 2009).


[19] See Metro, 08 January 2009, available at: www.metrotime.be (last access: 12 February 2009); Le Vif l’Express, 26November 2008, available at: www.levif.be (last access: 12 February 2009).


[20] See La libre Belgique, 22 December 2008, 31 December 2008, available at: www.lalibre.be (last access: 12 February 2009); Le Vif l’Express, 31 December 2008, available at: www.levif.be (last access: 12 February 2009); Face à l’info, La Première (radio station), 06 January 2009, available at: http://old.rtbf.be/rtbf_2000/bin/view_something.cgi?id=0160995_sac&menu=... (last access: 12 February 2009).


[21] Face à l’info, La Première (radio station, 6 January 2009, Knack, 17 December 2008, available at: www.knack.be (last access: 12 February 2009); Le Soir, 17 December 2008, available at: www.lesoir.be (last access: 12 February 2009).