Gleeful Sarkozy touches raw British nerves with a rod of fire

The inimitable Nicolas Sarkozy couldn’t resist the temptation to term last week’s allocation of jobs in the new European Commission as a victory for France and a defeat for Britain.  In particular, the French president crowed, he had outmanoeuvred the Brits by securing the internal market portfolio, which is responsible for financial regulation, for Michel Barnier, the new French commissioner.

It was certainly a little undiplomatic for Sarkozy to uncork the metaphorical Champagne bottles so soon after the announcement of the new jobs.  There are many raw nerves in the British government and in the City of London about how various EU measures in the pipeline may damage the UK’s financial sector.  Sarkozy touched every one of those nerves with a rod of fire.

In fact, he went even further by implying that France had more or less gained control of EU farm policies, too, because Dacian Ciolos, the new agriculture commissioner, was a Romanian who had studied in France.  The message?  Forget serious reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

The problem with Sarkozy’s enthusiastic outburst was that it reminded everyone, just as the EU’s Lisbon treaty came into effect on December 1, that most if not all of the bloc’s 27 governments still see the EU as an arena for competitive national muscle-flexing as well as co-operation.  British Eurosceptic circles responded to the make-up of the new Commission in exactly the same way as Sarkozy – i.e., it was a defeat for the UK.  Even pro-EU Brits used a similar interpretative framework, by seeking solace in the fact that Barnier’s department chief would be an experienced UK official supposedly sticking up for British interests.

But Brussels, in my view, does not operate in such a simplistic fashion.  The Commission has a deeply ingrained culture of working for the common European interest.  It rubs off on most politicians and officials who spend some of their career there.

Barnier will not be a mere puppet of the Elysée, as is suggested by a careful reading of his speeches over the years.  Here he is, speaking in 2006: “I do not think we need fear competition between ourselves, it exists everywhere in life… I have never criticised the Americans for being strong, I have always reproached the Europeans and others for being weak.”

Also, it is as well to remember that EU legislation – on the financial industry and other matters – may be drawn up by the Commission, but the final word lies with the Council of Ministers, representing national governments, and the European Parliament.  Many of the real political battles are fought in these last two institutions.

I somehow doubt Barnier’s role in shaping EU financial regulation is going to be anything like as decisive as either his supporters hope or his critics fear.