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Shot in the arm for the EU
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 22 - 01 - 2009

Six months as EU president witnessed Sarkozy in his inimitable form, notes Eva Dadrian
When he took over the European Union presidency last July, French President Nicolas Sarkozy pleaded tirelessly for a Europe built on strong states as opposed to a federal Europe, with all countries within the EU enjoying the same rights, though not the same responsibilities. To the MEPs gathered for his last plenary session in Strasbourg as president of the Union 16 December Sarkozy said, "We shall not build Europe without the [nation] states. As European as you may be, Europe is not the enemy of nation."
Sarkozy was the head of the EU since 1 July, when France took over the union's rotating presidency from Slovenia. No one can deny, not even his detractors, that the six months of his tenure as president of the Union were largely successful. Known to excel when faced with difficulties and always ready to take the bull by the horns, he dealt with each one of the crises in his very own way.
First the South Ossetia crisis erupted between Russia and Georgia at a time when Washington remained in the background, using the war for its own internal electoral politics. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused outgoing President George W Bush, with lots of justification, of provoking the conflict to aid John McCain, the Republican candidate, who is an outspoken critic of the Kremlin. Sarkozy seized the opportunity presented by the power "vacuum" and secured a common European front, launching what he called a continental dialogue with Putin, even though this was to be at the expense of Georgia's dreams to join NATO.
The Georgian crisis was the first Russian offensive outside its borders since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sarkozy made good use of the limelight, shuttling between Moscow and Tbilisi as tempers cooled and a ceasefire was declared, though there is some debate about what effect Sarkozy had in this. Moscow withdrew its troops from the outskirts of Tbilisi, while maintaining control over the two separatist provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Part of Sarkozy's concern was to distance Europe from US support for the Georgian aggression and to appear evenhanded to Russia, which supplies gas and oil to most of the EU's 27 members, and is one of Europe's largest export markets. Georgia may have paid a heavy price, but the EU came out not only stronger but liberated from US political dominance and more sovereign in its decision-making.
Then there was the global financial crisis. As the crisis reached Europe, each of the 27 members tried to find national solutions to deal with the crisis. The French president wanted Europe to act as one bloc, decisively take decisions and adopt solutions that would suit the union as a whole. Here again Sarkozy took the lead and called for an emergency G20 summit to deal with the crisis.
When the leaders of the world's 20 major industrial and financial nations met, they vowed to reform the global financial systems as a first step towards halting the worsening financial crisis. They also pledged more regulation and transparency of banks and financial institutions, including cross border cooperation to monitor multinational banks. Sarkozy worked closely with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to coordinate a European bailout strategy.
As well as the emergency crises Sarkozy had to deal with, there were four major questions that France was eager to focus on during its EU presidency: energy, immigration, agriculture and defence. At a marathon meeting in Brussels 11- 12 December and after intense efforts and negotiations, the 27 members reached a compromise on most technical questions but especially on the decrease of CO2 emissions in the automobile sector. There was also the creation of the Mediterranean Union designed to reinforce the ties with Europe's southern neighbours. It was launched on 13 July in the presence of most heads of state and government of the 44 countries, and hopes are it will have more success than the Euro- Med structure put in place in Barcelona in 1995.
With all these crises to deal with, should we forgive Sarkozy for having pushed two major issues -- Africa and the Middle East -- out of his in-tray? The only time Sarkozy looked at the African continent was in Doha when he met with Omar Al-Bashir, the Sudanese president, on the sidelines of the UN Development Conference Summit. After his meeting with Al-Bashir, Sarkozy said, "the Darfur tragedy has now gone on for too long, [Al-Bashir] must take initiatives and change things."
Just as Sarkozy was about to pass the EU presidential baton to the Czech president in January, these two files hit the fan, with the military coup in Guinea and the Israeli invasion of Gaza. Sarkozy was not ready to abandon the international stage and he once again got his two centimes worth in. Once again basking in his beloved limelight, he launched the Franco-Egyptian initiative for a ceasefire in Gaza, discussed ways to stop weapons from being smuggled to Hamas, and criticised Israel when addressing the Knesset. Although many within the Arab world question his idea of stationing an international force at the Egypt-Gaza border to stem the flow of weapons, Sarkozy managed to consolidate Franco-Syrian relations and increase his idea's popularity with the Arabs.
As president of the EU, Sarkozy behaves in the same way as he does as president of France: hyperactive, aggressive, issuing a steady stream of proposals and announcing surprising ideas, by-passing peers, officials and aides, even protocol. Whatever he managed during the six months of his tenure was at "triple gallop". As it turned out, his frenetic style added some much needed élan to an otherwise lethargic, fractious organisation. It will be a very difficult act for his Czech successor to follow, but a worthy precedent.


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