A Smokescreen Summit (03 Mar 2009)

“We must avoid constructing a new Iron Curtain in Europe”, so addressed the Hungarian prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany his twentysix EU-partners last weekend in Brussels. Attached to this appeal was a request for a recovery plan for banks in Eastern Europe worth between 160 en 190 billion Euros. The Hungarian government chief implied that if such a plan did not materialize, Europe would be divided once more, which would blow up the European Union.
The Iron Curtain hyperbole was of course nonsensical and failed to impress Gyurcsany’s negotiating partners, but it did reflect the general atmosphere created by rather panicky leaks from Brussels, and the more widespread speculation that Europe’s current problems, and the seeming inability to come up with credible measures to cope with those, has caused the Union to drift into a danger zone.
The convocation of this summit of heads of state and of government at Brussels had a bizarre background. It was to begin with a product of the generally unwelcome initiatives and ideas of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who earlier had reproached the Czechs and their current Union presidency for a lack of inventiveness and activism.
It is no secret that Czech premier Topolanek dislikes sudden summits organized outside the scheduled mandatory meetings. To be sure, the current crisis demands intensive cooperation and adjustments on top government levels, but repeated performances by leading politicians on the European stage for the benefit of their domestic publics does not benefit crisis solutions. Vague communiqués at the end of these performances do not contribute to the creation of confidence among Europe’s citizens.
As soon became clear, the cold shoulder for the Hungarian prime minister did not just come from the member states of Western Europe, but also from East Europeans who wanted to make it known that they did not appreciate being lumped together with the Hungarians. So, no Iron Curtain or, for that matter, one made of more supple material separating East from West was anywhere to be seen. The Czech premier Mirek Topolanek, European Union president for the first half of 2009, spoke reassuringly about a European Union that very clearly would not leave anyone “in the lurch”. Presidents and prime ministers talked about solidarity, but left it that the need and supply of aid would be evaluated on a case by case basis, and that aid already offered would be re-examined.
The conference did highlight something else that is of more than a passing interest: the phenomenon of the Sarkozy shows. They keep the French president visible and seemingly involved with the issues of the day, but they serve a purpose rather different from effective government and arriving at political solutions. This particular show was not the first high-level meeting on the crisis that the French president pulled out of his hat. And he appears to be able successfully to exploit every weighty development to place himself in the limelight, be it the violence in Georgia or Gaza, or the preservation of jobs in the French car industry.
The world outside France got a first taste of the phenomenon when Cécilia, Sarkozy´s second wife, stole the show – literally – for her husband on the occasion of the freeing of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian physician from Lybian captivity. They had been condemned to die under suspicion of having been responsible for the death of young patients in the hospital where they worked. Their release was the result of intensive diplomacy on the part of European Union representatives, but these had hardly any choice but to disappear in the wings when the then French First Lady appeared on stage.
Sarkozy continued his show series with his spectacular divorce from Cécilia, and with an even more spectacular third marriage with a well-known Italian model and singer. The series began to get bad reviews as a result of repetitive high-handed presidential interference with sensitive dossiers, something that has earned him the ire of especially Germany.
Sarkozy’s condescending attitude toward the German Chancellor inspired Le Figaro, a Sarkozy admiring newspaper, to run the headline last Sunday ´La France bouscule le sommet des Vingt-Sept´ (France turns the summit of the 27 upside down) and subsequently commented that the meeting showed the imprint of just one man, Nicolas Sarkozy. It has been the unceasing demand of the president of the Republic, so argues Le Figaro, finally endorsed by the German chancellor Angela Merkel, that the Czech president call his 26 partners to a short meeting of no more than three hours, devoted to an economic crisis that weakens the European Union day by day.
One sign of such weakening is the talk about possible impending protectionism among member states; obviously a sign of considerable regress in a grouping that began as a “common market” that had done away with internal trade barriers. And here again Sarkozy played a provocative part. During an extensive television interview he had promised the French car industry assistance amounting to 7.8 billion Euro, provided the manufacturers would use that money inside France. It so happens that the French car makers, attracted by the low wages in the Czech Republic have set up factories in that traditional automobile manufacturing country. Sarkozy’s condition that manufacturing units outside France should not profit from government support appeared to signify a direct assault on Czech employment conditions. “Protectionism” is how the Czechs callled that, the most serious reproach possible of one member state directed at another. Again, the internal European market without borders is the pivot around which the European economic community has turned for over half a century. Topolanek even talked about “a kiss of death”.
But the French president came up with a distinction. He had not asked to close factories outside France in order to protect those in France, he had only asked not to close them in France, something very different so he thought.
As the summit of only a few hours drew to a close, the partners appeared to have accepted Sarkozy’s explanation. There was no question of any form of protectionism inside the European Union, and thus no harm done to any market. The European Commission had already given green light for Sarkozy’s plans concerning the French car industry, and he had already asserted that “the others are now imitating us’. He may actually be proven right before long. A collapsing General Motors could very well drag its German daughter company, Opel, down with it. The leaders of the German Länder (federal states) with Opel division within their borders are not likely to accept a refusal of Berlin to come to their aid.
The summit participants could go home with the message for their domestic constituencies that solidarity within Europe had remained intact. There is no dividing line across Europe. There is no question of any protectionism. Protecting one’s own industry in times of emergency is possible without violating the rules of the treaty. A typical Brussels invention.
A lot of what most troubles several of the member states remained outside the summit’s agenda. Much of that revolves around the Euro. Sixteen of the twenty seven member states have adopted the European currency, and having done so form so-called Euroland.
Among the new members only Slovenia and Slovakia are within Euroland, and there appears to be no enthusiasm whatsoever to have the others join within the foreseeable future. The half year rotating European Union presidency is currently held by a country outside Euroland, the Czech Republic, something that gives the show-prone Sarkozy greater opportunity for posturing. Inside Euroland Greece, Ireland, Italy and Spain have become problem countries with debts that have exceeded permissible limits as measured against their national income. To avoid a Euro crisis the others are under pressure to come to their aid. Outside Euroland but inside the Union, Hungary, Rumania, and the Baltic States – especially Latvia – are experiencing great economic difficulties.
Leading up to the Brussel’s summit the political gossip concerned the weakened European Union in its entirety. Doom scenarios began to appear, especially in the Anglo-American media. Had the Euro reached the brink of its existence? Was the entire European experiment now doomed to fail? The government leaders attending the summit had heard the alarm bells and have at least clearly drawn the one primary conclusion that, no matter the increased mutual mistrust, they could not appear to be divided before their electorates. In a few weeks there will be another European Union summit. That one will prove whether or not the one of last Sunday has merely marked a postponing of the moment of truth when the lack of European political cohesion brings on disaster. The ties that unite Europe have proven to be fairly elastic, but rubbber bands can snap even so.