Since the initial expansion to 25 member states back in 2004, the future of the EU has been wildly uncertain. The constitution was supposed to sort everything out but, as we all know, that little project has failed dismally. For the last three years, the European Union has been in a state of growing stagnation, with no obvious way out thanks to the various petty spats and disagreements.
In Britain – rarely a country to seek active engagement in EU politics – Blair’s been on his way out for what seems like forever. Everyone’s known that Gordon Brown was likely to succeed even before Labour failed to find a viaible candidate to oppose him. But with the UK economy beginning to show signs of faltering and discontent with the government steadily rising, few would be keen to put too much money on Brown being returned with a working majority at the next general election, now most likely in 2009. Neither Brown nor opposition leader David Cameron, in any case, are likely to focus too much on the European Union in the next few years, as the issue is simply far too contentious – and with a tight election on the cards, neither can risk alienating the electorate by engaging too closely with Brussels. Expect no EU leadership from the UK.
In Germany, despite her best efforts during her current EU presidency, Angela Merkel has made little headway in pushing through EU reform, and is also still in the tricky position of ruling via a fragile coalition that could fracture in a moment, given the right point of contention. With Poland and – especially – Russia to worry about to the east, Germany is in any case too threatened by immediate problems to really care too much about theoretical long-term development.
In Italy, as always in that perennially unstable country, the government is still on the brink of collapse. Romano Prodi may be far and away the most EU-experienced national leader, but his domestic troubles mean that no one in the wider EU can rely on him to be in office in six months, let alone the few years it will doubtless take to push through major EU reforms.
Poland, the only new member state with a large enough EU vote to be a serious contender in shaping the future of EU reform, is currently led by a pair of twin maniacs set on purging their country of anyone they dislike – be it suspected former communists or homosexuals. With ever increasing lurches towards hard right authoritarianism, Poland has firmly positioned itself as the black sheep of the European Union – largely ignored with embarrassment, the rest of the time more or less gently being chastised by the other member states. The KaczyÅ„ski twins (one as President, one as Prime Minister) have only been in power for a year and a bit, and are likely to stick around for a while, but with a new model Polish nationalism increasingly at the heart of their politics, constructive engagement with the EU is highly unlikely to be on their agenda any time soon.
In Spain, meanwhile, the only other EU country even close to being large enough to exert any influence, Zapatero’s socialist government has increasingly been coming into conflict with the right – and now faces the threat of fresh ETA attacks, following the Basque terrorist group’s decision to drop their ceasefire last week. Having allowed the naturalisation of thousands of illegal immigrants – without consultation with the rest of the EU – Zapatero is also not flavour of the week in Brussels, and the recent elections of the right-wing and more pro-American Sarkzozy in France and Merkel in Germany have destroyed his previous European strategy of forming a bloc with those two countries. While friendly with Prodi (for as long as he’ll be around), Zapatero’s anti-US and pro-EU constitution rhetoric ensures he’s unlikely to find an ally in Gordon Brown, and the brief period where it looked like Spain may have some influence over the future of the EU seems to have come to an end.
So who does that leave? Surprise surprise – the country that ALWAYS seems to shape the future of the EU… France.
Six months ago, Sarkozy’s succession was highly doubtful. Chirac seemed opposed to him, Royal looked to be gaining popularity, and there was that whole potential scandal over the Clearstream affiar lurking in the background which could easily have ended his hopes of nomination, let alone election.
Now, however, Sarkozy seems to have the most secure political position of any leader of the major European powers. By all accounts, the French parliamentary elections are going to end up a landslide for the UMP – the first time in 30 years that an sitting French government has been returned with a majority.
On the domestic front, this gives Sarkozy carte blanche to put in place pretty much any reforms he likes – be it increasing the 35 hour working week, cutting immigration, cutting taxes, reducing the civil service, or reordering the criminal justice system.
But from the European Union perspective, this double endorsement of the Sarkozy approach likewise gives him a pretty much indisputable right to tell Brussels that what he says goes. Having rejected the EU constitution, French voters have now endorsed a president and a party which proposes a “mini treaty” approach, a president who has publicly declared the existing constitution “dead”. With Sarkozy now doubly endorsed, the stake has been driven well and truly through the constitution’s heart.
French opinion can (perhaps sadly) never be ignored when it comes to reforming the EU – a fact that Romano Prodi noted this time last year when he stated that any revision of the current plans could not possibly take place until after the French elections. Notably, since Sarkozy’s election, the formerly pro-constitution Prodi has begun to back the mini-treaty idea, and has even hinted at a multi-tier Europe. Surely even the nuttily pro-constitution Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who’s been performing frantic constitutional CPR for the last couple of years, can’t try and keep the thing alive now?
What this all means, therefore, is that Sarkozy is pretty much going to be able to dictate terms to Brussels. He will get his mini-treaty – at least in some shape or other. Gordon Brown is likely to back the idea, if not the detail. So is Prodi. So will – most likely – the Netherlands, Denmark and the Czech Republic, just to name a few off the top of my head.
And so we’re about to enter into another period of delaying tactics and discussions of a new direction. Despite Merkel’s hopes of sorting out the detail this summer, the mini-treaty is unlikely to be finalised until at least this time next year – most likely some time after July 2008, when France (conveniently enough) takes over the EU presidency.
That will then give Sarkozy another four years in office to sort out the longer-term fix for the EU that is increasingly desperately needed. Hell, if he gets close to the mini-treaty he wants, he may even go one step further and try his hand at broader diplomacy, and try to reignite the old special relationship between France and Russia with Putin’s successor, scheduled to take over in March 2008. So far, the signs are good, Sarkozy offering himself as mediator, and trying to position himself firmly as an unbiased party in the US / Russia missile bases dispute. Hell, he’s even been getting drunk with Putin – surely a good sign?
Possibly, just possibly, Sarkozy could be the answer to the EU’s prayers. A strong, secure leader of one of the most influential EU member states, with a cabinet that shows he’s willing to compromise and work on bipartisan terms despite his large majority, who’s regarded as both pro-US and rationally pro-EU, who looks to be cultivating friendship with Russia, and whose very first act on becoming president was to jet off to discuss the Union’s future.
I never would have thought I’d be saying this six months ago, but Sarkozy is by far our best hope for a workable European Union. Even more shockingly, I’m coming to respect this guy quite a bit.