Muted approval for France in the running up to the Czech Presidency

Czech Republic
Institute of International Relations
The French Presidency and its evaluation drew a lot of attention from the Czech media, the political scene and even the public sphere. The reasons were manifold. First, the institution of the presidency itself draws attention on its own thanks to the real and symbolic importance of the post. Secondly, the French administration stirred the still waters of European politics, and the waves have also reached the Czech Republic.
But importantly, the French Presidency preceded the Czech one. The Czech administration was in close contact with France already during the early phases of the preparation of the Czech Presidency and the common 18 month program. The Czech political scene as a whole and the media followed these negotiations closely. Once the French Presidency started, the eyes and ears of Czech politicians and the media were quite closely following it. The French Presidency influenced the fortunes of the Czech Presidency: it affected the agenda to be dealt with by the Czech Presidency. The French Presidency also provided an important reference point and a benchmark for the preparation of the Czech Presidency and its priorities. For example, when the Czech opposition (the Social Democrats) criticized the governmental preparations of the Czech Presidency, it pointed out the discrepancy between the French priorities on one side and the too liberal Czech priorities on the other. The assessment of the French activities (such as the mediation between Russia and Georgia) by the Czech media (and opposition politicians) was sometimes accompanied by speculation about how the Czech government and the Prime Minister would act in such situations.
The expectations of the European media and some politicians about the upcoming Czech Presidency were formulated with the French Presidency in mind. The commendations of the French Presidency were sometimes supplemented with worries and mistrust of the upcoming Czech Presidency. Some European politicians voiced their worries that after the successful and vigorous French leadership, the EU is heading toward a crisis and a halt with the eurosceptic Czech Republic. The positive assessment of the French Presidency by various European actors was used as a tool to bash the upcoming Czech Presidency. In autumn, the widespread satisfaction with the French Presidency culminated in speculations that it may be extended into the year 2009. Speculations that France may “steal our presidency” were perceived sensitively in the Czech Republic.[1] The form of the Czech Presidency (as well as a division of authority between France and Czech Republic) was even discussed bilaterally between the French President and the Czech Prime Minister at the end of October 2008.[2] The Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Vondra felt that “It was indispensable for Sarkozy to tell us that France would not steal the presidency away from us.”[3]
Within this context, it is quite understandable that the Czech political scene and media did not join the cheerful European mainstream (led by France itself), eulogizing the successes of the French Presidency. To be sure, the French Presidency was assessed positively by most actors in the Czech Republic. Our point is that the open and public approval was somehow muted because the successes of the French Presidency were used against the Czech one.
The French EU Presidency was personified by the French President Sarkozy. Thus, the assessment of the French Presidency as such might have been distorted by the personal sympathies/antipathies of individual political actors towards Sarkozy. The positive commentaries about Sarkozy usually focus on HOW he coped with the challenges rather than WHAT was the result of the decisions and/or negotiations. Both the media and governmental and opposition politicians praise Sarkozy for devoting a lot of energy and time to the presidency.[4] The reactions of Paris were swift and it was even tolerated that Sarkozy sometimes acted without an explicit mandate (e.g. during the Russia-Georgia crisis).[5] The Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Vondra, for example, remarked that Sarkozy really “leads the European Council in a very dynamic way. He speaks without notes [...] He can make decisions, he knows compromise.”[6] Similarly, the Prime Minister Topolánek commended Sarkozy’s style and praised him for being active and for “action”.[7] According to one commentary, the French Presidency was characterized by “hyperactivity, an incessant piling up of ideas, voluntarism and pragmatism”[8]. Sarkozy’s glamour and energy seemed to overshadow occasional reports about logistical problems and organizational chaos during the French Presidency.
While both the representatives of the Czech government and the opposition politicians expressed their satisfaction with the way Sarkozy managed the EU presidency, President Klaus more or less openly criticized Sarkozy’s style and behaviour. At the end of December he suggested that people like Sarkozy harm Europe and trample the basic idea of Europe because they do not respect diversity and plurality of ideas.[9] This attack, together with a skirmish about the EU flag over the Prague Castle, was part of a larger battle between Sarkozy and Klaus fought throughout the autumn and winter of 2008.
Positive assessment of the way Sarkozy managed the EU presidency prevails (with the exception of President Klaus). But media commentators and some politicians remain doubtful about the tangible results of Sarkozy’s decisions and mediations. For example, the Czech Foreign Minister and other officials appreciate that thanks to Sarkozy, Europe was at least able to act during the Russia-Georgia crisis. On the other side, observers remarked that the result – the ceasefire between Russia and Georgia mediated by Sarkozy – was too vague. Russia interprets the ceasefire in a way that is consistent with the current status quo, implemented by force.[10]

[1] „Ukradené“ předsednictví EU? (The ”Stolen“ EU presidency?), Lidové noviny, 10 October 2008.

[2] It should be noted that despite the past criticism of the Civic Democrats against the EU, the Czech government led by the Civic Democrats took the EU presidency very seriously. Its engagement in European issues (the EU presidency) is surprisingly high – it got fixated on the EU presidency as a unique opportunity to influence the EU, to sell ’Czech ideas’ and ’the unique Czech experience’ to Europe and to make the Czech Republic visible.

[3] Evropa je Sarkozym trochu uhranutá (Europe is somewhat spellbound by Sarkozy), Hospodářské noviny, 11 November 2008.

[4] Unijní předsednictví, jaké tu už dlouho nebylo (An EU chairmanship the likes of which we haven't seen for a long time), Hospodářské noviny, December 12, 2008.

[5] One commentary noted that Sarkozy was ”wagging the dog”. See Supersarko se loučí (Supersarko says goodbye), Lidové noviny, December 27, 2008.

[6] Alexandr Vondra in Evropa je Sarkozym trochu uhranutá (Europe is somewhat spellbound by Sarkozy), Hospodářské noviny, 11 November 2008.

[7] Být akční? To mě naučil Sarkozy (Being active? Sarkozy taught me that), Lidové noviny, 13 December 2008.

[8] Sarkozy září a úředníci zmatkují (Sarkozy shines and officials panic), Hospodářské noviny, 11 September 2008.

[9] Sarkozy škodí Evropě, vzkázal Klaus na Štědrý den (Sarkozy harms Europe, as Klaus said on Christmas), Právo, 27 December 2008.

[10] Unijní předsednictví, jaké tu už dlouho nebylo (An EU chairmanship the likes of which we haven't seen for a long time), Hospodářské noviny, 12 December 2008.