Sunday 23 November 2008

Two cheers for Sarko

Puffed with the Gaullist tradition of a French global role, Nicolas Sarkozy couldn't wait to get his hands on the rotating EU presidency. But look beyond some of the pomp and grandstanding, and this could be one of the most impressive presidencies of recent times. I say 'could' because a lot will depend on what happens over the next 18 days.

Of course the big member states will always want to leave their presidency's mark on the European project. The usual approach is to focus on one or two headline issues - Blair choosing international development in the 'Make Poverty History' presidency of 2005; and Merkel singling out an agreement on EU climate targets for 2020 in 2007 (of which she should be reminded over these next days), for example.

But Sarko clearly thought he could do rather better than that.

Ambitious French presidency plans had been long trailed: for historic shifts on EU defence policy (on which I wrote in last winter's Fabian Review); for a grand new union of the Mediterranean countries (with France at its centre, bien entendu!); for a common European immigration policy; and for a leading role for Europe in the next international climate change negotiations on a post-2012 deal, amongst others.

It hasn't quite worked out like that, but let's give the French president a bit of credit for his ambition, energy and enthusiam over the last 6 months. While not producing the results the Elysee had planned, Sarko's time at the EU helm has so far done the image of Europe as a global player no harm at all.

Three major global events (will) have shaped this presidency. Sarko has put the EU on the global map in response to the first two. All eyes are now on him to see if he can deliver on the third.

When Russia invaded South Ossetia, the EU were first on the scene, Sarkozy the broker of at least some sort of ceasefire agreement, for all its imperfections. The EU wasn't sidelined for being too slow to react to events in its own backyard, but instead appeared during the hot moments of the crisis for once as rather responsive, constructive and relevant to geopolitical affairs.

Then, when the financial crisis exploded with the implosion of Lehman Brothers in the US, the presidency faced an economic challenge unparalleled in the history of European integration. Early jitters were soon set aside for an EU stabilising role that makes the case for EU, and perhaps moreso Euro (are you reading, Gordon?) membership in the age of 21st century global capitalism, as the FT recognised on Friday.

But the biggest test of Europe's role on the global stage comes at the final hour of the French presidency. On October 12th at the next European Council in Brussels, EU heads of state and government will announce the final shape and substance of Europe's response to climate change until 2020. The date coincides with the final day of the next UN negotiations on a global post-2012 climate deal in Poznan, Poland.

What Europe announces on that day may determine whether such a deal will be reached by the Copenhagen summit in 2009 - the deadline set last year at Bali. It will also determine whether Europe can continue to see itself and be seen by others as a global leader in the fight against climate change. The stakes could not be higher.

The much proclaimed EU Climate and Energy Package, the weighty collection of European directives designed to realise those groundbreaking targets announced by EU heads of state under Merkel's presidency last year - for 30% cuts in CO2 emissions and 20% of EU energy to come from renewable sources by 2020, is now reaching its legislative climax.

Sarko has been adament that a deal on the Climate Package would be reached during his presidency - no doubt allowing him the limelight of a special announcement to the world's media during the Poznan summit. And there is little doubt a deal will be struck, the question is at what cost.

In facing up to the implications of those bold targets, many member states are seeking to row back on their commitments. Whether it is Italy's Berlusconi complaining of the underestimation of the costs of implementation; Poland's Tusk pleading over the impact on Polish fuel prices; Germany's Merkel - the previous year's EU climate champion - lobbying for German industry's special interests; or our own Brown looking for loopholes to 'meet' the UK's ambitious renewables targets, the danger of a weak deal looms large.

And a weak deal will be easily exposed by international partners at Poznan. The EU's credibility is on the line. If they construct a brittle shell of a climate policy for the next 12 years, their climate leadership role will be lost. The cry from the rest of the world will be that countries in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

So it's over to you Sarko to cut a deal that will cut the mustard on the international stage.

The picture is a devilishly complex one, but there are at least two major things to look out for when the announcement comes:

1. A clear commitment from the EU to move beyond a unilateral 20% cut in CO2 emissions by 2020, to 30% when an international agreement is struck. Only a 30% cut is anything like what is needed - if other countries make comparable efforts - to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
2. A major financial commitment to help developing countries cut the growth in their emissions and adapt to the climate change caused historically by the developed world.

These are two of the crucial building blocks that will be needed to keep the world on track to a global deal by the end of next year, and to keep Europe in its place as a global leader in the fight against climate change.

If the EU delivers, it'll have earned that title. And if Sarko can find compromises with enough environmental integrity, he'll have earned the three and more cheers for his presidency that should then ring out around Europe.

[You can tell your EU leaders it's time for Europe to lead the fight against climate change on December 12th by going to]

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