19th Nov 2019


Sarkozy should carry on as EU president

The French Presidency of the European Union came to an end on 31 December 2008, or did it? Although the formal six month term has ended - a term that saw the President of France transformed into a President of Europe - Nicolas Sarkozy shows a reluctance to lay down the baton. His role promoting a cease fire in Gaza is ambiguous. Is the initiative European or French?

To those who wondered whether the job of European President, as envisaged by the Lisbon treaty, would be simply a chairman and paper shuffler or someone jetting off to bend ears in Washington, Beijing or Moscow, Sarkozy has given us the answer.

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  • Sarkozy: "Why not appoint him to carry on for a further two years?" (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

For better or worse he has shown what the role will entail and therefore the sort of person required to fill it. The President of Europe has to be someone that can speak on equal terms with Obama, Medvedev and Hu; who can knock on their doors, demand - and be granted - immediate audience. Sarkozy has done this.

With no-one of equal Napoleonic energy available to take over from him, it is unsurprising that the man himself should want to carry on. There is, after all, an urgent job to be done, witness his peace initiative in the Middle East. "J'y suis, j'y reste" (here I am, here I stay) he seems to be saying. But by what means?

He has proposed becoming some kind of eurozone President; or that he might intervene on behalf of some loose coalition of large states - France, Britain, Germany and Italy. Both ideas are likely to prove anathema on Europe's small and medium sized fringe.

And yet with President-elect Obama's inauguration just days away, with Gaza in flames, with Europe facing yet another Russian gas crisis, quite apart from our wider economic, environmental and financial woes, Europe does need someone, like Sarkozy, to lead. The French Presidency called six European leaders' summits instead of the usual one and a half. This typified their determination.

Saying this is in no way to disparage the Czechs who have already taken Europe's presidential baton. They will no doubt do as expected and perform a competent job in running a conventional presidency. But we have moved on; we are living now in extraordinary times. To maintain the political initiative something more is needed than a conventional presidency.

Certainly, if the Irish had voted Yes to the Lisbon treaty last June we should have had a European President already. Who that might have been is anybody's guess. Certainly it would not have been Sarkozy.

Repeated referendums are unacceptable

Probably it would have been a low key chairman of the Council, a safe pair of hands; an unexciting and worthy buffer who would in no way upstage member state presidents and prime ministers on the world stage. That would have been disastrous. So maybe the Irish have done us a favour after all by enabling us to focus on the role of Europe's President, while we await the second referendum later in the year.

In this regard it is wonderful how again hope triumphs over expectation. No one ever believed that the Irish would vote No in the first referendum (despite what happened seven years before when they voted negatively on Nice). Now exactly the same confidence is placed on the result of a second referendum. I cannot understand it at all.

But even if the second referendum is won (as I hope it will be) it will leave a sour taste in the mouths of many (including supporters of the Treaty) who feel that democracy has not been treated with the respect it deserves.

It is not acceptable, surely, to persist in this practice, which we have seen now twice in Ireland and once in Denmark, France and the Netherlands, of simply overriding the popular will on the grounds that "we know better." European leaders will have to learn that occasionally democracy "democks." This may be unsatisfactory but the alternative is far worse.

I wrote last June that despite the referendum result it might be acceptable to implement Lisbon all the same, but on a voluntary rather than a legal basis. That is, each government would pledge itself to abide by the Treaty terms but in the full knowledge that they had no legal weight.

Contrary to appearances this would not be going against the will of the people, for, at a subsequent general election, voters would be able to elect a political party or coalition pledged to withdraw from such voluntary arrangements. No long term commitment would be given; no treaty pledges made, no sovereignty permanently given up.

No doubt this would give our learned friends, the lawyers, nightmares of considerable perplexity, but we are living in unprecedented times and face unprecedented challenges. "Yes, we can!" needs to become, not only Obama's slogan and the mark of the new optimism expected from the USA, but Europe's slogan as well.

Implementing Lisbon on a voluntary basis

So why not, on such a voluntary basis should we not implement one of the Lisbon provisions and simply ask Sarkozy to stay on? Europe's governments have decided that the Union needs a President. And putting personalities and petty jealousies aside, they have not been displeased, on balance, with the manner in which Sarkozy had performed the role these past six months. They have not jibed at the way that he has reasserted the influence of the Old Continent.

He has the benefit now of a certain experience; he is the incumbent. Why not appoint him to carry on for a further two years, subject to a unanimous vote in the European Council and the approval of the European Parliament?

Of course we shall not like everything he does, nor the manner in which he does them. But we mustn't let the best become the enemy of the good. Provided the decision is reversible - as in this case it would be (the Council could rescind its blessing at any time) then this voluntary arrangement could work.

If Europe needed a President in the benign days of the Constitutional Convention, six years ago, how much more does it need one now? Can we wait another year, (even if the Irish vote Yes) with an enfeebled Commission and two small country presidencies, while we reel under a concatenation of shocks - conflict, energy, climate, economic - that demand urgent action. Sarkozy should be given his Marshall's baton and told to carry on.

The author is an independent commentator on EU affairs


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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