Praise for Sarkozy as EU presidency ends

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MEPs and other leading European politicians offered their reviews of France’s performance at the EU helm at the end of its six-month presidency, during which Nicolas Sarkozy oversaw European responses to a number of global crises and at last week’s European summit secured an agreement on a key climate change package to curb emissions.

Sarkozy: ‘I loved the job’ 

At the end of last week’s summit, Sarkozy declared that leading the Union had been a “fascinating” experience and had opened his mind “considerably”. 

“Europe has changed me,” said the French president, who also claimed that as a result of his efforts, “we are starting to change the way we do things in Europe: talking less and doing more”. 

Speaking before a European Parliament plenary session yesterday, Sarkozy reiterated that he “loved the job”. In what may be perceived as a loaded message to the incoming Czech and Swedish presidencies in 2009, he added: “I hope those who succeed me will love the job as much as I did.”

Sarkozy received particular praise for his prompt responses to the global crises that unfolded in the latter half of 2008. Indeed, he admitted these had boosted his profile considerably, noting that “events helped us”. 

“The image of Europe today is stronger than it was at the beginning of the French Presidency,” he concluded. 

The French president was also quick to stress that the full sovereignty of member states remained supreme: “Europe is not the enemy of nations and nations are not the enemy of Europe,” he said. “If we hadn’t tried to understand the problems of our democratic governments, we wouldn’t have got what we achieved.”

Assessing Sarkozy’s stint: ‘Omnipresidency’ or weathervane? 

Seen as a whole, European leaders appeared to offer general – if occasionally qualified – praise of Sarkozy’s EU presidency. Energy, dynamism and passion were the words most commonly used to describe his high-octane style. 

EPP-ED group Chairman Joseph Daul, a member of France’s ruling centre-right UMP party, hailed the “remarkable efforts” of the French presidency, which made possible the development of a “more political Europe […] respected on the world stage and showing leadership in international negotiations”. 

Indeed, such was the pan-European and global prominence of EU President Sarkozy that Socialist Chairman Martin Schulz was moved to describe it as “omnipresidence”. 

“Your presidency of the EU has been quite good. I think we can talk about it as having been a positive experience,” Schulz said. 

However, while some hailed the French presidency for having brought an unprecedented level of international attention to the EU as a global political actor, others felt that Sarkozy tried to do too much at the same time. 

French Green MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit likened Sarkozy to a “weathervane that faces the right way one moment and a false direction the next”. He also derided the French president for trying to do everything and “have it every way”. 

Other politicians were also less than positive in assessing Sarkozy’s effect on the EU. French Socialist MEP Gilles Savary argued that Sarkozy’s excessive “personalisation” of the presidency had undermined the Community spirit, or esprit communautaire, espoused by famous pro-Europeans such as Jean Monnet and Jacques Delors. 

Savary claimed that, with “the complicity of [European Commission President] José Manuel Barroso,” Sarkozy had changed the nature of the European project from one of “political integration” to one of “cooperation”. 

Others adopted a wait-and-see approach in assessing the presidency’s legacy. “The presidency was globally positive,” Dominique Moisi, special adviser to foreign policy think tank IFRI, told Reuters. 

“Europe gave the impression that it existed on the international level with the crisis in the Caucasus, on the financial level with the Brown plan applied broadly by Sarkozy, and on the economic level with a Keynesian stimulus,” he said. 

However, Moisi added that it was “too early to say” whether Sarkozy’s EU presidency was the overwhelming success some commentators hailed it to be: “We will see in six months, at the end of the Czech Presidency, if Sarkozy’s presidency was enough to put Europe back on the right track or simply an illusion that lasted a few months and solved no major problems,” he said. 

Graham Watson, leader of the Liberal group  in the European Parliament, said "the challenges faced by this presidency have been met with energy, enthusiasm and creativity," adding that "Mr. Sarkozy has shown the power of European solidarity". 

However, Watson criticised the climate change agreement cobbled together at last week's EU summit. "The EU summit deal on climate change does not fully match what Liberals and Democrats had hoped," he said. 

Sarkozy last week hailed his agreement as "historic," but Watson argued that "it may come to be judged more harshly in the future for the blizzard of concessions to private sector interests which push down the price of carbon and reduce the money for investment in renewable energy". 

Francis Wurtz of the GUE/NGL group in the European Parliament said: "We will stand by this French Presidency. We will remember it because of the seriousness of the events of this half year." 

Yet Wurtz, too, expressed his dismay over the climate change package, claiming: "This is not an historic agreement. Does it risk letting the big players off the hook for damage to the environment? Only a small share of Europe's emissions will be tackled outside of the Union. If this model becomes the general model then we will miss some of the clear objectives that the scientific and world community has set." 

Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen, speaking at last week's summit after Ireland had agreed to hold a second Lisbon referendum in 2009 (after having won a number of concessions; see EURACTIV 12/12/08) praised Sarkozy for his "excellent presidency during the past six months and particularly at this summit". 

On the subject of the European response to the global financial crisis, Party of European Socialists (PES) leader Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, told Sarkozy: "You went as far as you could in getting agreement between 27 national leaders but please: Don't oversell the result. There is still a financial crisis." 

The French EU Presidency, under the motto 'A more protective Europe,' defined and outlined its policy priorities as early as August 2007 (see EURACTIV's LinksDossier on the French Presidency). 

However, its original priorities were overshadowed by a number of unforeseen crises as the EU had to respond to the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, Russia's invasion of Georgia, the global financial and economic crisis and European disagreement over a climate change and energy package. 

France nonetheless played an active role at the EU helm in all these matters, spearheaded by Nicolas Sarkozy, who, it is almost universally acknowledged, gave an unprecedented prominence and global visibility to the job of European Council president. 

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