Friday, July 4, 2008

A YouTube president is what the EU deserves

Sarkozy might make a spectacle of himself, but he is also good at telling it straight, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
Nicolas Sarkozy
It says a lot about Nicolas Sarkozy's confrontational style that even a decision as seemingly innocuous as lighting up the Eiffel Tower in blue, to celebrate the beginning of France's six-month EU presidency, gave rise to a controversy in Paris, with the city's popular mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, walking out in a huff from the ceremony on Monday night. ("It's only Sarkozy who has this effect on people," Delanoë aides hissed.)

Whatever Sarkozy turns his attention to is guaranteed to heat up fast.

It served him well during his triumphant election campaign last year, and it has helped unblock France's notoriously hidebound society on more than one occasion, from finessing through supposedly impossible pensions reform, to shepherding the country back into Nato to nary a bleat from the sentimental Gaullist cohorts.

Sarko managed to clinch the liberation of eight Bulgarian nurses from Libya, and rammed through the Lisbon "mini-treaty" - by the sleight of hand of selling it as most emphatically not the EU Constitution the country had previously voted "No" to.

In each case, bruised egos were seen as the unavoidable, but not terribly high, price to pay for brute efficiency from the newest kid on the block.

Though the style of the "hyper-president" has started grating in France, it still affords us some splendid spectacles, from Sarko's speed divorcing, dating and remarrying, to his expletive-laden spat with a member of the public at an agriculture fair, naturally caught on camera. (With his seeming incapacity to stand still, nervous tics, mobile eyebrows, waving hands, idiosyncratic grammar and BlackBerry habit, Sarkozy has done more than anyone for YouTube in France.)

But what will his erratic style mean for Europe - and Britain - now that France's agitated leader finds himself steering the EU for the next six months?

Although the job is less than it sounds (the rotating presiding country still holds no sway over the Commission, for instance), it still ensures great influence.

Sarko has already announced his aims, from lowering VAT on a number of areas including clean energy sources (not a favourite with Chancellor Merkel) to a moratorium on European Central Bank interest-rate hikes (ditto).

And then everything started going pear-shaped: the Irish "No"; Polish President Lech Kaczynski's refusal to ratify the Lisbon treaty; a gusty free-for-all with Peter Mandelson (who amazingly didn't find the time in his tight schedule to attend yesterday's EU presidency opening ceremony in Paris); a deadly shooting incident during a public army exercise in Carcassonne, leading to the very public resignation of the French army chief of staff; and finally, yet another of Sarko's YouTube hits - bootlegged footage showed him in manic form just before a television interview on Monday night, nearly blowing his top with the sound technician who hadn't answered his greeting, then threatening "changes" because he'd been met by a demonstration on the way to the studio.

But consider: letting loose the Amazing Exploding President on Europe might be just what that ponderous machine needs.

Sarko has been known to express frustration at the EU's apparent inability to listen to its citizens, and speak of the Commission's "autism".

Lost in the noise of his broadside against Mr Mandelson, Sarkozy said, for instance, of the Irish No vote, that "the Irish shouldn't be asked to vote again on the treaty - it would look as if we were trying to ram it through against their will".

Such niceties seem unknown among José Manuel Barroso and his colleagues.

He is also committed to the new French-British alliance, partly because Britain is the only real partner, in terms of military power, to advance European defence, which is foremost in his interests; and partly because he and Angela Merkel simply can't stand one another, personally and politically.

But no one in Paris would hazard a guess as to what will happen when Sarko the irresistible force meets the unmovable European object over the next six months.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2008

No comments: