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Sarkozy Rising

Sarkozy has made France's EU Presidency the most divisive in recent history.
Sarkozy has made France's EU Presidency the most divisive in recent history.
Even his detractors must admit that Nicolas Sarkozy is unique in the uncompromising manner in which he has directed France's EU presidency from the front.

But the implications of Sarkozy's leadership go far beyond matters of personal style -- his has also been by far the most divisive EU presidency in recent history.

In recent months, the French leader has stamped his personal authority on the EU's foreign relations, and attempted to sideline a string of arguably weak EU presidencies set to follow France's.

In the EU-Russia relationship in particular, Sarkozy's elevation of personal over institutional relations threatens to undermine Brussels' goal of persuading Moscow to commit itself to the bloc's basic values, and promises to have lasting consequences for regional and global governance.

There was ample evidence of this during the EU-Russia summit in Nice on November 14.

Within the span of a 45-minute post-summit press conference, Sarkozy promised as-yet-unsecured EU backing to a controversial Russian security scheme, tacitly or overtly antagonized a number of the EU's own member states, and openly criticized U.S. strategy in Europe.

By throwing his weight behind Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's calls for an OSCE summit in 2009 to discuss a new "security architecture" for Europe, Sarkozy ignored the misgivings of many EU members and fostered the impression that the bloc stands divided from NATO.

Brussels has yet to adopt a common stance on Russia's security proposals, which Medvedev says would entail a "pan-European treaty," aimed at overcoming what he has described as the continent's current division into "blocs" such as NATO or the CIS.

Referring to the U.S. strategy in Georgia, Sarkozy said it had not proved "effective" in comparison with the EU's own mediation efforts between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Injecting his opinion of sovereign Polish and Czech decisions to host components of a U.S. missile-defense shield that is fiercely opposed by Moscow, the French president predicted security in Europe would be rendered "more remote."

Sarkozy then drew unwelcome attention to the Baltic countries' vulnerabilities. Singling out Lithuania, Sarkozy announced that he had gained Medvedev's promise to secure energy supplies for that country after Vilnius shuts down its Ignalina nuclear power station in 2009.

Lithuania has a longstanding dispute with Moscow over Russia's discontinuation of supplies to a key oil refinery. With some backing from Poland, Lithuania was also the last vocal opponent of relaunching EU-Russia partnership talks that were suspended to protest Russia's military actions in Georgia. On that topic, Sarkozy suggested earlier this month that Lithuanian and Polish leaders misunderstood their powers under EU rules.

The refrain followed Sarkozy's recent foray into the highly sensitive issue of ethnic Russians residing in the Baltics. While trying to broker a cease-fire to end fighting that had broken out between Russia and Georgia earlier in the month, Sarkozy said on August 12 that it was "perfectly normal" for Russia to protect Russian speakers outside its borders.

Estonia and Latvia both have large Russian-speaking minorities, and Moscow has made those countries' citizenship policies a key element of its effort to challenge the EU's commitment to human rights.

In a detailed expose of the evolution of Sarkozy's stance on Russia, the French weekly "Le Nouvel Observateur" on November 13 wrote that Paris wants to become "Russia's privileged interlocutor in Europe." The reason? To promote "France and its interests," in the words of Jean-David Levitte, the president's diplomatic counselor.

The author of the piece, Vincent Jauvert, marveled at the magnitude of the shift in Sarkozy's views. Ahead of his election as French president in May 2007, Sarkozy had denounced Moscow's "silence on the 200,000 dead in Chechnya," saying he would "rather shake the hand of Bush than that of Putin."

Whether Sarkozy's U-turn was inspired by opportunism, reflective of a calculation of French national interest, or engineered by high-powered advisers with ethnic Russian backgrounds -- as "Le Nouvel Observateur" hinted in its piece -- doesn't ultimately matter. The French leader appears intent on carving out a de facto lead role for himself and France in the EU-Russia relationship that would outlast France's six-month EU Presidency, which ends on December 31.

If successful, Sarkozy would extend his influence far beyond Russia. His coup would have implications for EU-U.S. relations, regional and global security, and the EU's own internal cohesion.

That Sarkozy has set his sights high is evidenced by the fact that he is also trying to perpetuate his leadership beyond the expiry of the French presidency in the sphere of the economy.

French officials have argued -- so far unsuccessfully -- that since both of the next two EU presidencies (the Czech Republic and Sweden) have yet to join the euro, Paris should stay at the helm of an ad hoc EU "economic government." Sarkozy has already announced plans for a contentious financial summit on "Values, Development, and Regulation" in Paris in early January.

Sarkozy's antics appear to have taken most other EU leaders by surprise. Protestations were heard from Poland and the Czech Republic in the wake of his comments at the recent EU summit, but the larger member states have remained silent.

Germany is known to back Sarkozy's general course for rapprochement with Russia, although the French president's unbridled ambition is a cause for concern in Berlin.

Traditionally, Germany is looking to play a balancing role within the EU and the wider region. Writing in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" on November 14, one of the German daily's publishers, Guenther Nonnemacher, said the West -- the EU and the United States -- must continue to engage Russia. Much more than France, Germany appears to be worried about the future of the disarmament regimes affecting Europe after the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 and Russia suspended its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty in 2007.

The timing could not be better for Sarkozy. Facing elections in late 2009 in which Chancellor Angela Merkel is likely to run against Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinemeier, Germany remains hamstrung.

After the Litvinenko poisoning, Britain has become marginalized within the context of the EU's Russia policy. Sarkozy has in recent months painstakingly cultivated Prime Minister Gordon Brown and former Prime Minister Tony Blair, sharing with them some of the economic limelight. Partly as a result, London this month dropped its objections to continuing EU-Russia partnership talks.

But perhaps most importantly, the EU is facing a long list of relatively weak presidencies, starting with the Czechs and Swedes in 2009. Only in 2017 will one of the bloc's three "greats," Britain, next take its helm.

Regardless of Sarkozy's potential for long-term success, he has arguably done more already than his predecessor Jacques Chirac to undermine confidence in Eastern Europe in Old Europe's leadership. Relations between the bloc's two wings are liable to remain poisoned for a long time to come.

The damage done to EU-U.S. ties remains difficult to assess until President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January. At the very least, Sarkozy has given Moscow more leeway in its own efforts to divide the EU from the United States.