From now until the end of the year, Nicolas Sarkozy, the hyper-active, hyper-argumentative President of France is also going to be President of the European Union (EU.)
Does that scare you?
Well, it is scaring a lot of the Union’s 26 other member nations, not to mention the hordes of EU bureaucrats in Brussels.
They have good reason to be concerned but perhaps some to be at least a bit hopeful as well.
Surfing on his campaign promises to institute a vast program of change to shake up and renovate France’s bureaucracy ridden economy and social welfare system, Sarkozy was elected to the French presidency in May 2007 for a five-year term.
He told potential voters on the campaign trail that even if the changes wouldn’t always be easy, he was determined to push them through and not back off, as he accused his predecessors of doing at the first sign of electoral danger or public discontent.
Since his election he has been doing just that with the kind of perpetual motion and determination that is his trademark.
As he predicted, the changes haven’t been easy. Not surprisingly, his popularity figures have plummeted accordingly while the number of strikes and demonstrations throughout France aimed at staving off or watering down his proposed new measures has risen alarmingly. But he has shown no sign whatsoever of backing off.
What is scaring his European partners and the bureaucrats in Brussels is the perspective now of the Sarkozy buzz saw being turned loose on the staid and slow-to-change European Community system, one more inclined to endless discussion and finely shaded compromises than the slam-bang tendencies of its new President.
In accordance with the Union’s rotating presidency system, he will have to pass his new job on in six months to the President of the Czech Republic.
That will be none too soon for the EU critics who discern — or want to discern — in all of Sarkozy’s actions an attempt to push French interests forward first and foremost while pretending they are designed to strengthen the European Union.
On the other hand, a surprising number of EU experts are claiming that perhaps Sarkozy may be just the no-nonsense, forge-ahead-anyway man the Union needs at this moment to guide it and push it through the trauma caused by Ireland’s refusal last month to ratify the Lisbon treaty.
That treaty, essentially a Sarkozy production, had been seen as the blueprint for giving the Union a new, more effective operating, voting and leadership system to replace the existing one. The latter has become increasingly cumbersome and unmanageable primarily because of its requirement that major decisions must have the unanimous consent of all the EU’s member states.
The unanimity requirement was considered workable in 1957 when just six nations—France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands–gave birth to the European Economic Community (EEC) which since has become the European Union. Unanimity, however, has become increasingly impossible to obtain with EU membership now numbering 27 countries.
A perfect case in point was Ireland’s refusal to ratify the Lisbon treaty which included a loosening up provision to allow many decisions by three fifths of the Union membership. It already had been accepted by 19 of the 27 EU members.
Without Ireland’s assent and total unanimity, however, all attempts to change the system have had to be put in abeyance.
Sarkozy, who is energized by challenges like this, sagely has taken the position that the Union should give everyone three months or so to let the dust and the passions die down and simply go ahead with the Lisbon ratification procedures. When, hopefully, everyone else has come aboard, Sarkozy insists that would be the moment to go back to Ireland and try to work out a reversal of the Irish decision or some compromise that would keep it from blocking the changes proposed in Lisbon.
There he faces a rocky road because, in Ireland’s wake, other EU nations which haven’t yet made their decision about the Lisbon treaty, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, are indicating they also may not sign up.
Whichever way that all turns out, the new EU President has made it clear that the Lisbon treaty is simply one item on his ambitious presidential Agenda.
Among other things, he also says he wants to get EU agreement to:
—Union-wide tax cuts or tax caps on ever rising fuel costs. If that won’t fly — and the first EU reactions have been negative–he wants Union agreement to let each member nation decide itself about such taxes.
—Similar agreements aimed at energizing increasingly sluggish European economies by lowering EU-dictated tax rates on goods such as music and video recordings and on restaurant charges
—A common and tougher immigration policy. Sarkozy wants one that will trim back the vast numbers of immigrants, largely from Africa and Asia, who manage to get into an EU member country with lax restrictions and, by doing so, gain automatic entry rights to all other members of the Union.
—Union-wide taxes or other restrictions on goods entering the EU from countries that do not enforce the same environmental protection requirements on such goods as those required within the Union. Such imports, Sarkozy maintains, not only can be produced at lower cost and thus gain a competitive advantage over goods produced within the EU but they go against the grain of EU attempts to bolster environmental protection measures throughout the Union.
—A new effort to revive the often-debated but never really materialized idea of a European defence force capable of being allied with but not necessarily subservient to American military power.
—Maintenance and even strengthening of EU aid to agriculture, an area of particular concern–and benefit–to France.
—A review of the mission of the Central European Bank to force it to modify its rigid fight-inflation interest fixing policies in order to adopt measures that will help spur economic production.
In a televised interview on the eve of taking his new EU office July 1, Sarkozy made no secret of his intention, as he put it, to give the Union "a salutary shock"
He is well aware that during his six months in the EU’s top job he will have nowhere near the power he wields as President of France. He can suggest, urge, cajole, remonstrate, call meetings and propose programs and use the EU Presidency as a bully pulpit to hammer his agenda. He will not, however, have the right to dictate to or decide for the other member states. Decisions, when and if taken, will be made in concert, not by France alone.
Sarkozy also knows that at home many French citizen worry that he may sideline their concerns for six months while he deals with European ones. That’s why one of the themes of his eve-of-office speech was his insistence that everything he was trying to do for Europe would be beneficial as well for France and that one of his main efforts would be to make what the Union was doing more protective and more understandable for its citizens.
Lack of such understanding has been widely judged as an underlying reason for the Irish rejection of the Lisbon treaty.
Finally, Sarkozy is well aware that in Europe he will have to deal with the same kind of apprehension and resistance to anything resembling swashbuckling attempts to assert French "grandeur" that confronted his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, the last time France held the EU presidency in the year 2000.
"I won’t get everything accomplished that I want to," he admitted to his TV interviewers on the eve of his term but, he added, "if you put something in the pipeline, one thing or another always comes out the other end."
Only time will tell just what that will be.