The New Year is traditionally a moment for reflection and prediction, and this week the British press considered the contrasting challenges facing two European leaders assuming new offices at the start of 2001.
And the winner is...
The title of "toughest political job of the New Year" was awarded by the Financial Times (FT), in a leader on 29 December, to the Prime Minister elect of Serbia, Zoran Đinđić. The FT listed his priorities as, first and foremost, tackling the state's power, fuel and water shortages, followed by economic reform and stabilising relations with its federal and regional neighbours. In time, the FT reported, he should also decide what to do with former president Slobodan Milosević.
"The obstacles are huge," observed The Economist (6 January), in a profile of "Serbia's other big man." This analysis not only addressed the political task ahead but also considered whether Đinđić is likely to measure up.
In character and appeal, he contrasts with federal President Vojislav Koštunica, with whom he enjoys tense but currently stable relations. Unlike Koštunica, Đinđić's electoral triumph —the democratic alliance won 64 per cent of the vote in Serbian parliamentary elections on 23 December—was achieved despite personal unpopularity. But The Economist noted: "Disliked he may be, but few Serbs deny that Mr Đinđić—smooth, sophisticated, handsome and chic—is also clever, dynamic and brave."
"Mr Đinđić has to be tough and shrewd," concluded The Economist. "He also needs conciliatory skills—and integrity. He has the first two qualities in abundance."
Sweden takes over EU presidency
The most instant change brought about by the passing of the year was the beginning of Sweden's presidency of the European Union on 1 January.
France's six-month period of ascendance ended with acrimony over its handling of the negotiations at the Nice summit. Smaller EU countries were particularly offended by perceived French high-handedness. The Guardian reported "sighs of relief from its fellow members" (28 December) and quoted criticism of France by unnamed Brussels insiders for behaving "with the individualistic, loose-tongued arrogance of Paris taxi-drivers in a bad mood."
Much blame was attached to the destructive consequences of the rivalry between France's Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, and Gaullist president, Jacques Chirac, who seem destined to be the main candidates for the presidential contest of 2002.
New focus on EU enlargement
Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson wishes his presidency to focus principally on enlargement and, additionally, on the environment and employment—considered by some to be a worthy but unambitious agenda.
"Mr Persson is keen for the EU to welcome new members, especially from Central Europe and the Baltic," commented The Economist (6 January), adding that here "Sweden might make a difference" since it wishes the applicant countries most advanced in their preparations to be allowed in first—"which would rattle the Poles."
A leading article in The Guardian on 2 January concluded that "Paris's loss looks increasingly like Berlin's gain," since the accession of Central European states will now go ahead "on largely German terms." The Guardian felt British Prime Minister Tony Blair needed to come to some kind of rapprochement with France in the medium term, since the "German version" of the EU's future "is a distinctly different vision from Mr Blair's, let alone the British public's, particularly in its greater faith in a more federal structure."
Blair's quiet success
But Paris's loss surely also marks a quiet success for London, with Blair emerging from Nice with considerable credit, having gently advanced the cause of enlargement, which Britain now claims to champion, while conceding little that the press and public could get their deeply Eurosceptic teeth into.
Blair will work comfortably with Persson, with whom he shares common ground on support for early enlargement and the need to restrain EU partners' zeal for further integration. Sweden and Britain constitute two of only three EU states outside the eurozone.
The Economist noted that the Swedish public's attitude to the EU is familiar to London—"Along with the British, they are the least enthusiastic members of the club"—while Persson's position on euro membership is now close to Blair's: not yet. He is in favour, but only in principle, and after the referendum rejection of the euro by fellow sceptics in Denmark, seems unlikely to seek to join in the near future.
But a leader in the Financial Times (2 January) foresaw problems ahead for Sweden's presidency. Of particular difficulty will be two processes "over which Sweden will have no direct control"—the EU's newly announced defence policy and rapid reaction force and the countdown to full euro launch on 1 January 2002, since Sweden is neither a member of NATO nor the euro. The new EU president must also come to terms with a new US administration and cope with inflationary pressure in parts of the eurozone.
The FT recommended that "Mr Persson will have to move fast if he wishes to accelerate the tempo of enlargement... because the political climate on the continent can only get more difficult in the next 12 months. Now is the time to ensure that the momentum is unstoppable."
Oliver Craske, 8 January 2001
- Archive of Oliver Craske's articles in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central and Eastern Europe through CER
- Return to CER front page