Saturday, February 14, 2009

Czech - French spat: Just the beginning?

The other day, freelance journalist Alexandra Kitty wrote a post about the man who once the former Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, and how he held together what should have been an impossible country -- and how it fractured once Tito exited stage left in 1980 and there was no longer a personality cult.

I commented half-jokingly in the reply thread it seemed like back to the future, that a country put together by war, then torn apart by it, was in effect being put back together with Slovenia now in the EU (and more importantly the Eurozone) while Croatia and Serbia are on the fast track for membership as well. How odd, I thought, that in just a couple of years the borders that were put up in the 1990s are going to be torn down again and the former country is in a sense being reunited (although stitched to the rest of the continent). In reply Miss Kitty pointed out (correctly, I think) that the EU no matter how successful hasn't fully delivered on its promise; and while it has helped to maintain the peace in Western and Central Europe where it operates, it also operates on a big amount of ego and when times are tough (like now) it can't get its act together.

A "memo" in today's NYT sheds a bit more light along that line of thought, and it focuses on a row between two countries that are allies militarily but huge rivals economically -- France and the Czech Republic. The EU Presidency presently rotates on a six month basis between the 27 member states and right now it is held by the PM of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus. Previously it was held by the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy -- and lately the two leaders have openly exchanged insults at each other. To make matters worse, when Sarkozy tried to broker a ceasefire in Gaza last month, he only took along the diplomatic representatives from the "major" EU states. Even the EU Commissars were left out in the cold -- the Czech Republic had to contact Israel directly, then persuaded Germany to have one of their officials on the plane.

But diplomacy is just one of the problems. The economy is tanking, and with it some old habits are emerging. While Klaus managed to keep Bulgaria and Slovakia in line during the natural gas battle with Russia, he was unable to stop Sarkozy from promising huge subsidies to the French auto industry with a further promise to "repatriate" jobs -- and he specifically cited Prague as undercutting French autoworkers.

Unlike the 1930's, where beggaring thy neighbour during the Great Depression was one of many grievances that led to war, I doubt a war will erupt in Europe now -- the countries are too tied together for that to be a possibility.

The EU and the Euro have both been success stories, although I think there's more here than just countries who use the Euro (like France) and those who do not (like the Czech Republic). And I don't think it's a case of a former Warsaw Pact member suddenly finding itself at the top of the heap and being a fish out of water about it.

What I think it is, is the plan for a "permanent" EU President (with a 30 month term and a person not tied to any one member state), ending the current rotation. The big powers in the EU -- the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Poland -- want to keep running the show and under the present arrangement at least one of them gets the torch every so often. The thought of someone from Sparta or Malmo or even Vilnius telling them what to do must positively scare them -- and the spat between Paris and Prague is just the start.

It would be a shame for the whole thing to fall apart because they can't stay focused on priorities, while keeping arguing about the little things and making moles out of an ant-hill. Especially when the group as a whole is trying to welcome the remaining outliers in Europe to join the club so that the economic pain is more spread out and the pre-1914 situation of a continent without any borders finally becomes a reality.

They need to get their act together -- for their people's sake as well as the economy. I'm not saying it should be Kumbaya -- insults have to be answered directly. Nor should it be the so-called "United States of Europe," even most pro-EU people in Europe would revolt against that.

What I am saying that whatever personal feelings they have need to be laid aside, however temporarily, to focus on the big picture. Hurling potshots doesn't create jobs or assists those who have lost them.

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Skinny Dipper said...

"The Czech Republic is a small country, outside the United Nations Security Council, outside the eurozone — the 16 nations that have adopted the euro as their currency — new to the European Union and unused to the diplomatic head table, the French official continued."

The Czechs are doing a fine job getting used to being the head diplomat. Dobry den!

BlastFurnace said...

I personally think as well that when the six months are up, the Czech Republic will have a lot more respect than what they're getting right now.

I also don't think any country in the EU quite expected the economy to get so bad so quickly -- so any of the member states getting the chair would be under the crossfire right now.

Personally, I don't think I could handle the scrutiny to be fair, and I'll concede I'm impressed by how the Czechs are handling it even if it is quite unconventional by the norms we've come to expect.