Monday, June 30, 2008

President of Europe

Forgive me if what I am about to say is too familiar to bear repeating. Many readers of this blog will no doubt be more conversant with the institutions of the European Union than the average American. But to judge by the number of times I am asked about "Sarkozy as president of Europe, what does that mean?" many people don't really understand the structure of the EU executive. And who can blame them? It's hardly a model of clarity, and the executive really isn't an executive in the classic sense. In addition, Sarko's publicity flacks are doing their best to magnify the office, which Sarkozy assumes tomorrow. So what exactly is it?

On July 1, Nicolas Sarkozy, as head of the French state, becomes the president (it might be more accurate to say "chairperson") of the Council of the European Union (not to be confused with the Council of Europe, which has nothing to do with the EU). The former council--let's call it the EC1, for short--is collectively the "executive" of the European Union. Now, there is also another EU organ, the European Commission, which also has executive or administrative-executive functions, and its president is not Sarkozy but José-Manuel Barroso. Let's call this EC2.

The presidency of EC1 is a rotating affair with a term of six months. The president has no greater formal powers than any other member of the council, although the visibility of his office affords him a certain opportunity for maneuver and initiative. Some occupants of the office have been content to deal with matters as they arise; others have attempted to launch initiatives, insofar as that can be done in a brief six-month tenure.

Sarkozy assumes office at a moment of crisis, in the wake of Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. But the EU has really been in crisis since the French and Dutch no votes of 2005. This chronic crisis--to be oxymoronic--may alter Sarkozy's priorities, which, according to Le Monde, are agriculture, defense, immigration, and environment. Defense is likely to sink to the bottom of the pile, as little headway can be made on a common defense policy in the absence of the more unified foreign policy apparatus that was to have been midwifed by the Lisbon Treaty. Rescuing the treaty itself may become Sarko's primary goal, though he is in an awkward position to repair the democratic deficit, as a head of state who decided to ignore the failure of his own people to ratify the agreement.

Sarkozy allegedly confided to Yasmina Reza that he knew he had only about a year to make his mark in France before rigor mortis began to set in. The clock has now run out on that effort, and the score, according to the latest LH2 poll, is 66-34 against the president. The temptation will therefore be great to make the most of the fresh clock afforded by the European jaunt, but Sarko will have forfeited the home-field advantage. He has also changed his style, and it remains to be seen whether he will return to the frenetic pace of his early presidency with its daily announcements and frequent interventions under klieg lights here, there, and everywhere. This hasn't been the style of EC1 presidencies past, but then Sarko's manner was new for the Elysée as well.

So Europe waits. Or, rather, a thin stratum of Euro-watchers waits, while most of Europe goes about its business in sublime indifference. It probably doesn't help Sarko's cause that much of the continent will be in fermeture annuelle, albeit with fewer tourists than usual owing to the steadfastness (recalcitrance?) of that other echt-European institution, the European Central Bank, which, alas, the EC1 president is powerless to do anything about. Before anyone begins paying attention to the news out of Brussels again, it will be autumn and Sarko's presidency will be half over. In the meantime, he has twenty-six other heads of state watching his every move like hawks, outgoing president Angela Merkel first among them. The state of play is quite different from the state of play at home, where the opposition is in disarray and the majority in disgruntled beatitude. It will be a test of Sarkozy's skills to see how he handles this. I don't rule out surprises, but I don't expect miracles either.

For a more thorough exploration of the issues, see Judah Grunstein's blog.


Anonymous said...

Just heard: Poland decided to abandon the Lisbon Treaty. It was announced right as NS started his term, for better effect.
Not an auspicious start.

Anonymous said...

a remark: you confused the Council of the European Union (the 27 ministers of whatever gathering) with the European Union Council (heads of State and others), which is what Sarko will be "chairperson" of.
Granted, France (but not Sarko) will preside over the Council of the European Union...
You really thought it was that simple?
You really thought, having painfully invested the time to be able to notice such things (sigh), I would give you a free pass?

Unknown said...

Thanks, Justin. Good to have a real expert around.

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