Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sarkozy on America and the world

by Tomas Valasek

In his first 100 days in the office, Nicolas Sarkozy turned France’s domestic political scene on its head. He trounced and marginalised the far-right National Front in the May presidential elections. In parliamentary elections a few weeks later, he wiped out Francois Bayrou’s bid to form a centrist party. And once firmly installed in the Elysée palace, he emasculated the leading opposition party, the Socialists, by poaching their best minds.

What in the world, one might wonder, will he do to France’s foreign policy when he puts his mind to it?

Well, on Monday we got our first hint. Sarkozy gave a speech to an assembly of French ambassadors from around the world. The presentation was typical Sarkozy. It oozed confidence. The speech showed him prepared. And, in a number of important ways, it showed him willing to depart from policies of Jacques Chirac.

The most interesting part of this speech was about Iran. Before even mentioning the country by name, he notes that France has an obligation to help the rise of emerging states by giving them access to nuclear technology for peaceful use. In saying so, he seems to be pre-emptively addressing Tehran’s accusations of double-standards. But then, when Sarkozy starts talking directly about Iran, he hammers. To France, a nuclear-armed Iran is simply unacceptable. France will support a new round of UN Security Council sanctions (when only last month it was said to be lobbying in New York against it because French companies may be among the most affected). And finally, the coup de grâce: unless Iran respects its obligations it will not escape “the catastrophic alternative: a nuclear-armed Iran or the bombing of Iran”. Sarkozy is effectively laying the blame for possible US intervention at Tehran’s feet. He is making Iran the issue, not the US. He does not condone bombing but suggests that he may not be entirely opposed either. And if it happens, it will be Iran’s fault. This is a significant change from Jacques Chirac’s days.

Washington’s joy at the speech will not be unqualified. Sarkozy is not warm to America. When addressing it directly, he calls for “pragmatic” relations. Sarkozy’s agenda for the French presidency of the EU in 2008 is not particularly US friendly. The emphasis on immigration, energy and environment offers little hope of rapprochement. With the exception of energy these are issues that are either intra-European (immigration) or on which the EU and France do not see eye-to-eye (environment). On NATO, Sarkozy says he wants the alliance to co-operate smoothly on military matters with the EU. But he makes no hint of how to resolve the impasse that effectively keeps the EU and NATO from talking to each other. Worse (from the US perspective) he wants to strengthen the EU’s operational planning capacity, which has been a thorn in the side of both London and Washington.

On the other hand, where Sarkozy talks of issues that matter to the US – China, Iran, the Middle East – he strikes a line similar to Washington’s. That is true not only for Iran but also for the Middle East, Russia and China. Sarkozy comes down stronger on the side of Israel than any other French leader in recent history. He proudly calls himself a friend of Israel. He says peace with Palestine is very important but it will not happen if the Palestinians cannot form a government. Sarkozy called the Hamas takeover of Gaza “the first step toward establishing Islamic radical foothold on Palestine territories” and said that the Palestinian Authority must be rebuilt under its president Mahmoud Abbas.

On Russia and China Sarkozy strikes a realist tone. He ignores their domestic affairs altogether. Their foreign policies come for criticism. Sarkozy chided China for using monetary policy as a power tool, and Russia for using energy as a “brutal” weapon. (Interestingly, nowhere does he raise issues that made his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner famous: the slide toward authoritarian regime in Russia, or violations of freedom of speech in China. In foreign policy, as in everything else, Sarkozy seems determined to run things directly from the Elysée.)

The overall impression Sarkozy leaves is that he is neither anti-American nor pro-American. He does not take cheap shots: although he notes that France was right on Iraq, he does not gloat. He states in the preamble that “the leaders of the past twenty years failed to construct a workable post-Cold war order”. But he is both right and diplomatic in saying so, so America should not take offence. The speech effectively removes America as the defining issue of French foreign policy. France will not view foreign policy as an opportunity to score points at America’s expense; it will judge the world’s problems on their own merits. Where Sarkozy does so, he finds that he has a lot in common with the US. But he will not go out of his way to restore America’s good standing in Europe; the Americans will need to do that work themselves.

Overall this is a very strong presentation. He clearly thought about foreign policy a lot. We have come to associate Sarkozy’s France with exuberant confidence but it bears remembering that only three years ago, the world looked very different through French eyes. The then-Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, also speaking in 2004 to assembled French ambassadors, lamented the decline of France in Europe (because of enlargement of the EU to include pro-US countries). Sarkozy could not have struck a more different note.

Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy & defence at the Centre for European Reform.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Poland’s poll and the EU treaty

by Katinka Barysch

Poland’s early election may coincide with the last days of talks on the new EU Reform Treaty. Although the Kaczynskis are unlikely to reopen a deal agreed in June on the treaty's content, last minute political posturing for a home audience could delay the text being signed off.

Many Europeans were relieved when Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczyinski sacked his junior coalition partners in August. Kaczynski’s somewhat prickly and paranoid Law and Justice party (PiS) has been difficult enough to deal with. The inclusion of the arch-nationalist League of Polish Families (LPR) and Andrzej Lepper’s populist Self-Defence made it worse. This government has (perhaps understandably) blocked EU talks with Russia, (outrageously) used World War guilt to get more EU votes and (unwisely) threatened to veto the whole Reform Treaty. The spectre of Poland holding an election exactly when the inter-governmental conference (IGC) is supposed to wrap up the treaty talks will haunt many in foreign ministries across the EU.

The Polish parliament has postponed the final decision of whether and when to hold an early election to September 7th. The PiS minority government has little reason to hang on while the opposition Civic Platform (PO) would love to capitalise on its current poll lead. The earliest possible date –and the one most widely mooted – is October 21st. That is three days after EU leaders are supposed to sign the Reform Treaty.

The Kaczynskis (Jaroslaw and his twin brother Lech, who is president) would gain little from making the treaty an election issue. After all, they had claimed victory after the June summit. Although the other Europeans had refused to re-open talks on the EU voting system – Poland had insisted on sticking with the Nice formula, then pushed for a rule based on the square root of populations – they did agree to delay the introduction of the ‘double majority’ system until 2017. Polish officials afterwards grumbled that an agreement on blocking minorities was not sufficiently spelled out. But this is not a big enough issue to re-open the entire treaty package.

The PO does not like the June deal: it was PO leaders who had come up with the memorable “Nice or death” slogan and first pushed for the square roots system. But on the whole, the PO’s attitude towards the EU is similar to that of the PiS, although less anti-German (which is why Jaroslaw has recently been portraying the PO as Berlin’s puppet). To gain votes, the PO will want to stress what makes it different from the PiS, such as administrative competence, pro-business policies and more liberal attitudes towards social issues.

Neither the LPR nor Self-Defence can be sure to overcome the 5 per cent threshold for parliamentary representation. So they will run together, and do their utmost to steal nationalist and conservative votes from the more mainstream PiS and PO. Their eurosceptic rants and calls for a referendum on the treaty could put the PiS and the PO on the defensive. Despite the Poles’ generally pro-EU attitudes, many Polish party leaders appear to have convinced themselves that elections are won on the right.

The lone pro-European voice in the forthcoming election will be Aleksander Kwasniewski, the popular former president, and the Left and Democrats, a movement put together from bits of the former Communist party. Although the left almost faced political oblivion in the 2005 election, it is now rising steadily in the polls.

For most Poles, Europe is not a major concern at the moment. Life is good: the economy is growing at a brisk 7 per cent, unemployment is at a post-Communist low and EU money has started to flow in. In the latest Eurobarometer survey, almost 80 per cent of Poles said their country has benefited from being in the EU.

Nevertheless, Europe could become an issue in the election campaign, not least because the Commission is asking for radical restructuring of the iconic shipyard in Gdansk. To prevent the radical parties from benefiting from anti-EU sentiment, the Kaczynskis could seek to postpone final agreement on the treaty. This would be no disaster: signing it at the December summit would still leave EU members enough time to ratify it before the 2009 deadline. But the Portuguese presidency would be peeved (it wants to focus on Africa in December), as would be Gordon Brown who wants to get the treaty ratification out of the way as quickly as possible. Poland would once again be singled out as the EU’s troublemaker.

Those who are hoping for a fundamental shift in Poland’s EU stance after the election may be disappointed. The PO’s Europe policy would be more polished and constructive, but no less assertive when it comes to Poland’s national interest. Moreover, the PO is unlikely to gain an outright majority. Although the PO and the PiS agree on much, personal animosities would make ruling together fiendishly difficult. The PO and the Left, on the other hand, share a dislike of the Kaczynski twins. But it is doubtful whether this would be enough to overcome the PO’s suspicion of the former Communists, as well as programmatic differences. As long as Poland is ruled by unstable and often short-sighted coalitions, the EU will remain a tempting platform for politicians to showcase their nationalist credentials.

Katinka Barysch is chief economist at the Centre for European Reform.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Europe in the US-UK special relationship

by Tomas Valasek

Gordon Brown scarcely mentioned Europe during his visit to the United States, certainly much less than Tony Blair used to. That is understandable. The current prime minister is blessed with the fortune of sharing his time in office with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, two pragmatic, Atlanticist leaders. Unlike Tony Blair, Gordon Brown does not need to worry about keeping the US and EU strands of UK foreign policy from coming apart. This gives him a freer hand in reviewing US-UK co-operation on key foreign policy issues.

Tony Blair sided with Washington over Iraq in part to keep the European Union’s common foreign policy from slipping into an openly anti-American stance. While he believed that removing Saddam Hussein was important in its own right, he also calculated that allying the UK with the US would keep Europe from trying to collectively weaken the US position on Iraq, and possibly elsewhere. (The exact intentions of messieurs Chirac and Schröder will always be subject to different interpretations. But their words and actions during the Iraq crisis strongly suggest that, in addition to heartfelt opposition to the US-led war, they also viewed the crisis as an opportunity to build the EU into a tool for balancing US power worldwide.)

The EU is now shaping the US-UK special relationship in subtle yet sometimes decisive ways. In the case of Iraq Tony Blair would likely have supported Washington irrespective of French or German views. But he clearly also felt that their opposition gave him little option; and that by breaking with Washington the UK would fuel anti-American tendencies around Europe, and possibly precipitate a permanent transatlantic split. The previous prime minister was dealt a terrible deck of cards: siding with Washington, Blair knew very well, meant plunging the EU into a foreign policy crisis – which it did, in 2003.

If only Blair had Gordon Brown’s current options. Four years later, both Chirac and Schröder are gone. Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are far more pragmatic and Atlanticist than their predecessors. They are far less tempted than Chirac and Schröder to construct a European foreign policy identity on the basis of opposition to the US. And President Bush, too, has been chastised by the Iraq experience. His second administration is distinctly more multilateralist, less guns and more butter.

The role of Europe in the US-UK relationship has changed correspondingly. Unlike Tony Blair, Prime Minister Brown can afford to not worry about Europe as he reassesses the relationship with Washington. His European counterparts, by and large, have good working relations of their own with the US. Brown is far freer than his predecessor to refashion the priorities of US-UK foreign policy co-operation, knowing that a possible occasional strain in the relationship is not going to have wider repercussions in Europe.

Arguably, Britain has lost some of its usefulness to the US, too. Many find the idea of the UK acting as a bridge between the US and Europe fanciful. But, without UK leadership, the other Atlanticist EU countries, mostly new member-states in Central Europe, would have come under tremendous pressure from Germany and France to form a united EU front against the US. Tony Blair’s words and deeds demonstrably helped shore up support for the US in Europe. Gordon Brown is not likely to be called upon to play the same role. EU members are making far more pragmatic and less ideologically-driven decisions on their relations with the US than they were in 2003. As US-European ties become less confrontational, there is less need for the UK to play its balancing role within Europe.

Now that Gordon Brown is free to judge the US foreign policy on its own merit, without worrying about the EU context, what use did he make of this manoeuvring room at his meeting with George Bush over the weekend of July 25th- 26th?

Arguably, not much. Most of the change that stemmed from the summit was cosmetic. Gordon Brown clearly went to the US resolved to shake off the poodle image without undermining the special relationship. He succeeded in this. His cool, reserved demeanor with the US president restored dignity to London’s standing in the US and in Europe.

As far as substance is concerned, Brown sounded surprisingly hawkish on Iran (although more in his pre-trip press conferences than at the summit itself), while gently creating a little distance from Washington on the issue of a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq – Britain wants to be out sooner. But he may have missed an opportunity to clearly state his differences on the Middle East peace process. Britain is gingerly moving towards engaging Hamas and working with it to make it a legitimate and responsible actor. The White House has struck out in the opposite direction. President Bush last week announced a raft of initiatives meant to isolate Hamas and bolster its main rival, President Abbas. Gordon Brown remained largely silent on this point during his press conference with George Bush. This could mean that he agrees or – more likely – that he wanted to avoid a dispute in the open. And that is a pity. Because of the change of leadership in Europe, the prime minister is less constrained in his dealings with Washington than his predecessor. If he believes US policy on the Middle East to be wrong, this was the time to say it.

Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy & defence at the Centre for European Reform.