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The Presidency dinner - Thursday 30 October 2008
at The Steyning Centre


Diégo Colas
Conseiller politique - Ambassade de France à Londres
Political counsellor - French Embassy in London

on
the French Presidency of the EU
Diégo Colas was born in Paris, grew up in France and then in the USA (New York).  he studied and took a BA at Georgetown University (Washington), then a diploma at Sciences-Po Paris (Paris Institute of Political Studies) and the École Nationale d’Administration. He has been a member of the French foreign service since 1999, in the legal department (dealing with EC law, 1999-2002).   Diégo Colas
He was special adviser to the French Minister for Europe from 2002 to 2004, and has been political counsellor at the French Embassy in London since 2004.


Diégo Colas talked about some of the issues faced by the French Presidency of the EU.  The meeting immediately followed the AGM and lunch held at the Steyning Centre on 30 October 2008.

Diégo Colas recalled that he had often spoken at European Movement meetings in France and it was interesting to compare EM activities between the two countries. Realising, as he said, that “Europe has the capacity to make the most interesting topics boring”, he would avoid too much technical detail.

During its 6-month Presidency of the European Union the French team faced two major crises: the conflict in Georgia and the worldwide financial collapse. The original priorities for Nicolas Sarkozy, as he stated during his state visit to the UK, were the environment and climate change, and for the concept of “Europe” to be better seen in a global context. “Europe” should not be an introverted concept but one that had positive impact on global challenges - the more effective if all EU members work together. The global dimension applied equally to agriculture and defence issues.

Some long-running themes continued during the French EU presidency:

  European institutional issues – France inherited the need to make progress towards endorsing the Lisbon Treaty. The treaty itself needed to be seen in a global context. One clear message was that is was an institutional treaty, aiming for effective institutions as its membership widened. It was hoped that a there would be a meeting in December at which Ireland would be invited to propose a solution to its negative vote.

There was an argument that Europe works well enough, so why not abandon the Lisbon Treaty? This ignored the obvious fact that as the union enlarges it becomes less and less efficient. There was a need to have institutions that could move on to more active on serious issues.

  There were now more coherent policies on worker migration. Negotiations have provided a methodological breakthrough in interstate planning.

  The Common Agricultural Policy – steps had been taken towards a re-think – what does Europe need as an agricultural policy? What is the impact of the CAP on developing countries? This problem could be seen where countries had evolved food production for sale to Europe while their own people starved.

  Carbon emission targets – the economic recession had undermined the commitment of some countries to the EU targets. There had been ten summit meetings during the French presidency period, including summits with Asian governments.



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But there were also events that could not have been forecast:

Georgia –The incident did at least demonstrate that, untied, the EU had the weight to stepin and influence the outcome. The EU was seen to be not much impartial as a disinterested party. The problem now was what should come next. The EU and Russia have many common interests – commercial, energy, overflight arrangements. “Punishing” the Russians was not a practical option. The focus has been on positive actions:  the EU hosted a donor conference on Georgia, and its action was seen in the context on the Neighbourhood Policy.

The financial crisis – in September 2008, Lehman Brothers bank had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. That marked the largest bankruptcy in US history. The failure of the Lehman Bank showed that any large bank was vulnerable. The Irish guaranteed their banks, but it was a unilateral move that failed to reassure the market. The crisis continued, as for instance in Hungary. The IMF was brought in to provide calculated support. The opaqueness of some accounting systems increased the problems. The crisis, Diégo Colas concluded, was a demonstration that all governments could unify – “we just have to want it, for it to happen.”

A lively round of questions followed:

Was France expecting any visit from the US President-elect? It was more likely to be the other way round.

The French President had made unhelpful remarks on possible Turkish membership of the EU.
The EU had established a customs union with Turkey. But ongoing negotiations require acceptance of a profound transformation in Turkey. Nicolas Sarkozy’s attitude was that there was no point in absorbing Turkey if doing so were to break Europe into two camps. The preferred option was a close association, and on this two chapters had been opened during the French EU presidency.

What could be done to support those Russians who did not want conflicts to escalate?
The united weight of the EU helped Russians to take things seriously. The EU attitude had been non-confrontational, and openly prepared to hear both sides in a conflict.

What was the future role of the G8, and EU attitudes to extending it?
This was a defence and economic organisation based on the situation decades ago. Whether G14 or G20, it was necessary (a) to recognise who were the ‘great’ powers today; (b) to mobilise co-ordination of powerful economic forces.

Security and defence – was the UK seen as a partner or as unilateral?
The UK has always shown commitment to a European defence policy, and should be seen as setting an example. France and the UK between them made up two-thirds of European defence capability. The rapid deployment of the EU monitoring mission in Georgia (set up from nothing is just two weeks) illustrated the effectiveness possible. Involvement of NATO would not have been acceptable.

Should not the Strasbourg Parliament be axed – to save carbon emissions?
The problem went much wider than saving carbon emissions. Symbolically it was essential for the institutions of the EU to be spread widely throughout Europe, and that required communication and movement between them. The Strasbourg Parliament was just one such institution.

The next Presidency of the EU lay with the Czech government. Were the French at all concerned about an apparently eurosceptic government taking over from them ?
The Czechs would need to handle further endorsement of the Lisbon Treaty. The Czech team knew that holding the EU Presidency would increase their weight and influence in Europe.

 

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