I rule the EU, says Sarkozy. In a bar for journalists in the Brussels building of the European Council I met my French colleague Nicola. A press conference had just ended where the Czech finance minister again warned against the spread of protectionist ideology.
Nicola tried to convince me that that the time has come for the big, economically powerful countries to rule the EU because the small ones are simply unable to handle it. He said that the whole philosophy of the EU is changing and that what Topolánek and Kalousek say about the threat of protectionism are voices from the past. French President Nicolas Sarkozy will do whatever he wants anyway.
To rule the EU, he needs Germany. According to Nicola, the key EU players have already joined forces. French leader Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were to revive the traditional French-German motor at a security conference in Munich last weekend. Their joint letter calling for an extraordinary EU summit.
“Where did they meet? In Munich. Where will the next extraordinary summit be? Not in Prague. It will be in Brussels, where Sarkozy can have better control of the situation,” remarked a diplomat in Brussels.
Czech PM Mirek Topolánek does not have an easy job dealing with the French. And without a doubt, Nicola is right in many ways. If Berlin and Paris again make deals behind the backs of other countries, then the others will have difficult time fighting it. If the Czech presidency loses the support of the German chancellor, it will find it hard to stand up to the French steamroller.
As the EU president, the Czech Republic has found itself in a difficult position. It is fighting for a status that it has a right to have for six months. The times are difficult and every politician is trying to show his voters how proactive he is. All the more so since someone like Nicolas Sarkozy is the leader of France. Even he is struggling with making an impression on his voters.
In the end it was a letter from Merkel and Sarkozy that forced the Czech Republic to call for an informal meeting at the highest level. European Commission President José Barroso picked up the phone, called Topolánek and said that the situation is untenable and that there has to be a summit. Topolánek agreed, but said the key message must be “no to protectionism”.
So it looks like Topolánek backed down. But even Sarkozy, who wanted a summit of eurozone countires, which would not include the Czech Republic and the majority new member countries, was forced to make compromises. Merkel didn’t agree to to that. The Elysée Palace didn’t have arguments over protectionism just with Topolánek over the last few days.
Will Sarkozy succeed over the other key powerful players in the EU? London was irritated by Sarkozy’s remarks that criticised Britain’s move to lower its VAT. On Tuesday, 10 Downing Street received an explanatory letter from Paris. The Czechs received no such thing. Again, this proves that, although weakened by the crisis, Great Britain is much bigger than the Czech Republic. And the fact that the Czechs are now presiding over the EU doesn’t change that.
But Nicola is wrong about some things. For instance, the claim that Sarkozy will be able to finally create safety nets for the car industry, and that no one will stand up to him. The European Commission, a much criticised institution in the Czech Republic, which in the eyes of many, churns out tonnes of unnecessary regulations, clearly said: The state cannot offer help to only those companies that agree not to move their production abroad. That would be a violation of free competition on the joint market.
The commission, in fact, has more on openily sided with the Czech presidency than one might have expected. José Barroso’s letter, which praises the Czech presidency for handling the position well despite many crises, proves this. Not only Brussels is talking about the horrible spiral of protectionism. It seems that the Czechs aren’t entirely alone, after all.