Unfinished Tasks for the President of Europe

On December 30, the last working day of the French Presidency of the 27-member European Union, the Foreign Ministers met in Paris to analyse the conflict in Gaza and to propose a cease-fire. President Nicolas Sarkozy is now on his way to the Middle East to talk with the officials of Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Israel about such a cease-fire and follow-up negotiations. "Did Sarkozy’s stint change the EU for good?" asked Stephen Castle and Katrin Bennhold in a front page analysis of the International Herald Tribune. Will Sarkozy’s six-month presidency fundamentally change the EU? Was it just a parenthesis of bravado or will it be seen by historians as the beginning of a new Europe?

There were four outstanding challenges that arose during the six months of the French presidency of the EU and which continue as there are no easy solutions.

1. The Middle East – both in its violent manifestations as in Gaza and in its more cooperative forms as the Union of the Mediterranean.

2. EU-Russia relations, seen in the Russia-Georgia-South Ossetia-Abkhazia conflict and the closing of energy supplies to Ukraine on January 1, 2009 – a reminder of the EU’s energy dependence on Russia.

3. The economic downturn and the crisis of financial institutions and stock markets.

4. The institutional structures of the EU – its non-existent Constitution and its administrative decision-making processes.

Of course, Nicolas Sarkozy was not President of Europe. The post does not exist. The EU has a rotating six-month "presidency". In most cases, it is the Prime Minister or the Minister of Foreign Affairs of a State who plays the chief role, partly administrative, partly symbolic. Except for a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg at the start and again at the end of the presidency, usually little is heard of the President until the next six-month presidency starts. The six months of Slovenia’s presidency made no headlines. Nicolas Sarkozy, however, has a "star" quality which overshadows both his Prime Minister and his Foreign Minister.

Some issues Sarkozy had planned in advance, such as his proposal for a Union of the Mediterranean first presented during his political campaign for the French presidency; others were reactions to events such as the Russia-Georgia conflict or the banking crisis. In each case, he reacted quickly and took center stage. He is a good speaker, having been a courtroom lawyer before his entry into politics, and he presents his ideas forcefully. However, he must leave followup applications to others who often have not prepared the practical steps. Sarkozy has vision but tends to underestimate the steps which need to be taken to achieve the goal.

This was seen in his proposal for a Union of the Mediterranean. Historically, Europe has been structured around the Mediterranean- the Roman Empire being a long-lasting European institution, that that has served as the model or that other long-lasting European institution – the Catholic Church. France with its colonial and post-colonial ties to North Africa as well as the large number of North Africans living in France has always had a Mediterranean policy. Sarkozy added Turkey to the Mediterranean proposal – largely because he is opposed (or at least not welcoming) to Turkey joining the European Union. When Sarkozy proposed the Union of the Mediterranean, it sounded as if the Union would be a complex form of integration on the EU model. No other European leader thought of it that way, and the EU’s Central European members said in effect "The Mediterranean, where is that?"

There has been since 1995 a modest EU "Barcelona Process" directed toward North Africa in areas of Education, ecology with the control of migration in the background. After the July 13, 2008 start of the Union of the Mediterranean summit in Paris with a good deal of publicity, came the necessary follow-up with no one really sure as to what should be done next. The first step was not to make the idea look too new or too ambitious. Thus it was proposed and accepted to keep "The Barcelona Process" name and just add "Union for the Mediterranean" (not of the Mediterranean which was the title in French). The headquarters remain in Barcelona. There is a modest budget, and the emphasis will be on education and research with a small program of aid to small and middle-level businesses. The creation of employment possibilities in North Africa is necessary to lower the pressure for migration to Europe.

Since Israel and its Arab neighbors are in the Barcelona Process, the political aspect of the Middle East cannot be avoided, even if the Barcelona Process has no meetings dealing with political issues. The increased tensions between Israelis and Palestinians will color any high profile measures within the Process though work on educational cooperation will continue to be useful.

Russia inevitably looms large on the EU scene, both in its military-NATO aspects and in commercial relations, especially the energy field. Thus European Foreign Ministries have "Russian policies" even if they are not all the same. What was unforeseen was the melting of the "frozen conflict" of Georgia-Russia which had started in 1991 for South Ossetia and 1992 for Abkhazia. That the conflict would break out again this July caught most observers by surprise. That Sarkozy and his Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, were able to move as quickly as they did to establish a cease-fire and provisions for monitoring it is a tribute to Sarkozy’s energy and to Bernard Kouchner’s experience with emergency situations. Kouchner is the founder of Doctors without Borders and an advocate of fast action in humanitarian crises. A cease-fire is not a solution, and negotiations over Georgia-South Ossetia-Abkhazia which have started in Geneva are likely to be difficult. However the EU is now potentially a major conflict resolution actor. It was much less before.

The world financial situation should have been obvious earlier, but there was a wide-spread European attitude that it was an "American problem" and should be cared for by the US government. However, the world financial system and the stock exchanges are closely linked and what may have been failings in US financial control and policies were seen to have an impact on Europe. Sarkozy took a lead for a European-wide common policy to safeguard banks and to encourage loans to businesses, especially small businesses which have an important part of the labor force in Europe. Sarkozy also pushed for a world-wide economic response with the G20 meeting in Washington in November and its follow up in London in April 2009. It is difficult to know how deep the economic downturn will be in the EU countries, but coordinated government policies are now established as necessary.

The EU’s decision-making process remains a major challenge – a challenge which from January 1 is in the hands of the Czech Republic whose President Vaclav Klaus is a self-proclaimed "Euro-dissident" and hostile to decisions taken by the RU secretariat. The "no" vote of Ireland in June 2008 on the Lisbon Treaty (an updating of the EU decision-making structures) leaves the EU using decision-making rules created before the EU expansion to 27 States. In practice, the EU works well enough without a "constitution." While the UK can function without a written constitution because of a long shared political culture, it is difficult for the multi-cultural EU to continue without an agreed-upon administrative structure for so large a number of States faced with bot expected and unexpected challenges.

Also see these earlier articles by Rene Wadlow on related topics:

The Mediterranean-Black Sea Union: The Ship Sets Sail

Come Late, Leave Early: Russia-Georgia-Abkhazia-South Ossetia Negotiations

Rene Wadlow is a Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens and editor of the on-line journal of world politics and culture: www.transnational-perspectives.org

Photo by Jean-Louise Aubert