Things started off badly for French President Nicolas Sarkozy as he took charge of the EU presidency on July 1st 2008. On June 12, the Irish rejected the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum, forcing the French to change an agenda that was supposed to focus on climate change, immigration, defence etc. Except these 'priority' issues never really saw the light of day.
First successes, difficulties
The Union for the Mediterranean, Sarkozy’s pet project and a key element of his agenda, was launched in auspicious circumstances on July 13th on the occasion of the visit of 43 heads of states and governments. It was a diplomatic success. But in the months that followed, the difficulties within the existing Euro-Mediterranean partnership - known as the Barcelona process - and the deadlock of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process caught up with Sarkozy’s ambitious project.
In the meantime, there were other pressing issues to attend to. Sarkozy put all his energy into finding an end to the Georgian crisis. The fighting stopped but the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan was not all that it seemed. The EU did not guarantee Georgia’s territorial integrity since Moscow recognises the separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. There is no going back.
A victory of realpolitik
The French presidency went ahead, even if, given Russia’s expansionist tendencies, it rubbed some of the former Eastern bloc countries the wrong way. Three months after he put negotiations for a long-term energy partnership with Russia on hold, Sarkozy advocated a new start with the support of Italy and Germany, who both share economic interests and energy markets with Russia. Realpolitik or abdication? The Elysée is betting that the future will show France was right.
The last surprise guest in the presidency was the US subprime crisis, which turned rapidly into a world financial and economic crisis. This time, Sarkozy consulted his British counterpart, Gordon Brown. The latter made an unexpected and successful comeback and delivered a bailout plan for the European banking system worth 1.8 billion euros in guarantees.
After increasing pressure was put on the German chancellor, first perceived as reluctant, the same method was applied to the European stimulus plan - worth 200 million euros. The plan's success will be measured during the course of 2009, following its approval at the Dec. 11-12 European Council. As for the thorny climate plan, also adopted during the last European summit of the French presidency despite the reluctance of several member states put off by the crisis, it will no doubt stand as a major success for France's ubiquitous leader.
We know when the French presidency started, but we don't know how or, apparently, when it will end. The president of Eurogroupe, Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, could not resist saying: “You want a unique and energetic EU president, you've got one!” Yes, but what happens next? Sarkozy is said to want to stay on at the EU helm and organise informal Eurogroup meetings throughout 2009 to deal with the crisis.
"What I have done these last six months has been absolutely fascinating. I have no regrets; just look at all that can be done in six months! We have brought about a change in old habits!", said the French president, evidently pleased with himself as he addressed the media during the European Council's closing press conference in December, before ending with a passionate plea: "Europe deserves to be loved, to be embodied."
On paper, the Czech Republic, not a member of the eurozone and reputedly more eurosceptic, will head the EU for six months starting on January 1. The Czechs will inherit unsolved problems like the Lisbon Treaty, the economic crisis, relations with Russia but also the high expectations raised by their predecessors.