A new approach to ‘Europe-building’

Greek Centre of European Studies and Research
The Sarkozy performance at the helm of ‘Europe’ has been highly rated in Greece, both in political circles and throughout the media/public opinion, despite some sarcastic comments about “a ‘showing-off’ of the French Presidency while the Commission was having intensive lessons on how to manage a crisis”.[1] Sarkozy’s tendency to come forward and take the lead was welcomed, be it in the context of the global (albeit US-initiated) financial crisis where he was instrumental in organising a ‘European response’ (even if he had to concede the effective helm of Eurogroup discussions to – non-Eurozone member – Gordon Brown of the UK) or in the context of the turn-of-the-year Israel/Gaza strip bloody foray where he did not hesitate to push aside the Czech Presidency and its (initially, at least) too hesitant responses especially as it came just after the French Presidency. Indeed, the one thing positively rated in the way the French Presidency was exercised was the lack of emphasis on the institutional aspects of things and the shift to a pragmatic – ‘we have to get results’ – approach, which has been sorely lacking in EU life.
Coming closely after the failure of the ratification procedure of the Lisbon Treaty, and given the low expectations for a fast recovery of the constitutional process (or something close to it) in EU life, this change of political atmosphere being derived from France – considered a staunch supporter of a federal Europe insofar its elites are viewed, with no reference to the Gaullist past – this pragmatic activism has been hailed as a positive sign of a new approach to ‘Europe-building’. An approach privileging action-taking (and efficiency) over institutional discourse (and legal wrangling) was appreciated.
Further to the institutional aspects of the French Presidency, positions and initiatives taken by France in the crucial weeks of the financial-sector avalanche of fall 2008 were closely followed in Greece. The abrupt shift of economic policy orthodoxy away from a deregulation/full market freedom mantra and towards a re-regulation/market-monitoring-cum-State-intervention stance, has shifted favour back to the French tradition of (relative) interventionism as a more responsible and crisis-adequate modus operandi in view of the biggest crisis the world economy has known over the better part of one century. Also, France calls in favour of ‘economic governance’ in an EU setting as well as ECOFIN/Eurogroup control met with approval.[2] Also in his speech to a session of the Organisation for the Study of Greek Society Problems[3], where he charted the course of EU response to the global financial crisis from the (quite hesitant) ECOFIN-ECB meeting in Nice (12 September 2008) to the Eurogroup-plus-UK meeting of 12 October 2008 in Paris (where a number of actions were sketched) and to the November 11th Special Summit in Brussels (where the future regulation of rating agencies, the surveillance over hedge funds etc., were broached), leading to the G-20 meeting of 15 November 2008.
European or American foreign policy?
The French Presidency (and Nicolas Sarkozy’s) record in the Georgia/Abkhazia issue has been met with less enthusiasm, since Russia and this country’s stance and relations with its “near abroad” have been gaining in favour in Greece over the (recent) years.[4] Moreover, the Saakashvili regime clearly benefited from visible US encouragement in its initial moves in Abkhazia, which has easily brought to the surface negative Greek reactions over American foreign policy in the wider region (cf. the US over-eagerness to extend NATO membership to the FYROM, which was mirrored in Georgian expectations to get under the NATO umbrella; Greek hostility to both US initiatives move colors negatively.
In contrast to the high regard in which the French Presidency was held in Greece (especially ex-post), expectations from the Czech Presidency almost collapsed due to Prague’s very first steps in the opening days of 2009 – which coincided with the bloody Middle East events, i.e. Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip which was dealt with (at least initially) in a quite cavalier way by the Czech Presidency. Thus, an essential expectation from the new presidency was for it to collaborate smoothly within the group presidency (France, Czech Republic, Sweden) so as to establish and-keep continuity of Community action, especially concerning the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), EU-US and EU-Russia relations, the global financial crisis and energy (especially following the Russian-Ukrainian deadlock).[5]

[1] Costas Botopoulos (MEP of the center-left PASOK): “Leap forward or stalemate for Europe?”, in Ta Nea, 21 January 2009, p 6.

[2] See Costas Simitis: “The Crisis” (in Greek), Polis Publishing, Athens 2008, pp. 89-90.

[3] As reported in International and European Policy (in Greek), vol. 12 (Oct.-Jan. 08) p. 12 ff.

[4] See among others G. Voulgaris: “Globalisation and the Ghosts of ’1947’ and ’1914’” and Ino Afentoulis: “Crisis in the Caucasus and the Euro-Atlantic/European Architecture”, in International and European Policy (in Greek), vol. 12 (Oct.-Dec. 08) pp. 139 and 143 respectively.

[5] See Nikos Frangakis: “The EU from the French to the Czech Presidency” (in Greek), in To Vima, 13 January 2009, p. A7.