Sarkozy warns Visegrad countries not to make a habit of pre-summit meetings
By Honor Mahony
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken a swipe at Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, who last week met ahead of the EU summit to talk through their positions on the topic of the day.
Speaking after a meeting of EU leaders last week, Mr Sarkozy said "if they have to meet regularly before each council, that could raise questions."
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"That is not the case yet," he added.
To date, the four countries have met twice at level of head of state and government in Brussels - before a March meeting of EU leaders and before last week's summit.
In the spring, they discussed - and disagreed upon - the economic crisis and how it should be handled, while last week they discussed the two hot issues of the summit, a last-minute Czech demand for an exemption from part of the Lisbon Treaty and climate change negotiations.
The environment question was particularly sensitive, as Poland was heading a group of nine new member states who toughed it out on financial questions related to climate change talks, at one stage threatening to take a splinter negotiating group to international talks on the issue in Copenhagen next month.
The damaging split, played out in the media, only intensified the impression that Europe was talking up its green credentials without being willing to pay for them, even though a broadstroke deal was agreed on the second day of the meeting.
A Polish diplomat said the Visegrad meeting was "purely about co-ordination. We have quite successful co-operation in the region, so why not use this to an advantage." He also noted that co-ordination of positions is "actively encouraged" to shorten the notoriously lengthy tours-de-table at EU meetings.
The four eastern and central European states, who all joined the EU in 2004, have been having get-togethers at national level since 1991, when the leaders of Poland, Hungary and the then Czechoslovakia met in the Hungarian town of Visegrad, to launch the club. The constellation became known as the Visegrad group and is institutionalised to the extent that each country has its turn at the Visegrad presidency.
Mr Sarkozy's comments have raised accusations of double-standards. "My natural instinct, if he was to forbid the meeting or criticise it, would be to ask why he was meeting with the German chancellor every time before the summit. It's exactly the same," said an EU diplomat.
Other groups also meet before summits, notably Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, who share a long history of co-operation, as well as the various political families in the EU.
Piotr Kaczynski, from the Centre for European Policy Studies think-tank in Brussels, said it was "criticism of the Polish position that is getting stronger and stronger in the EU."
Referring to "different standards," he suggested Mr Sarkozy may be "getting irritated that Germany and France alone cannot control things anymore and maybe it means shifting their policies."
Germany and France have long been considered the "motor" of the EU. Working in tandem, they can usually push through a lot of what they want. But their informal "directorate" has been challenged since 2004, when 10 mainly eastern European countries joined the EU.
The sheer difference in number of member states changed the internal dynamics of the EU, while new member states, who do not always share the views of Paris and Berlin, have become increasingly assertive at the negotiating table.