The task of chairing the European Union has never been easy. With 27 member states since last January, cobbling together compromises has become ever more complex. Usually, big member states are worse at the job than small ones, because they try to set their own agenda, and seek to achieve too much.
It is all the more remarkable, therefore, to be able to compliment Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and her cumbersome grand coalition, for the very successful presidency they have conducted in the past six months. Old Brussels hands describe Ms Merkel as the most effective council president they can remember. She combines a command of detail and directness of approach with a lack of arrogance and willingness to listen to big and small alike. She is firm but not threatening.
When the chancellor emerged from the Brussels summit 10 days ago with agreement on a “reform treaty” to replace the moribund EU constitutional treaty, she achieved what few were willing to predict. They feared months of continued wrangling over how to share power, and take decisions, in the enlarged EU. Instead, they got a precise road map of how to draft the new treaty and reach final agreement by the end of the year.
In addition, Ms Merkel secured a deal on ambitious EU goals for reducing carbon emissions at her March summit. She narrowed the gap between Europe and America on global warming at the Group of Eight summit in the interim. That was no mean achievement.
Portugal’s José Sócrates has taken over the EU chair for the next half-year, and must complete the job Ms Merkel started. He hopes to finish an inter-governmental conference by October and have a new treaty signed by December.
It will not be straightforward. The Polish twins – Lech Kaczynski, president, and Jaroslaw, his brother and prime minister – are threatening to pull out of the deal, claiming to have been misled. Perhaps they misunderstood it. But an IGC demands unanimity, so their wrecking power is real.
Yet a new challenge looms for Portugal: not from Warsaw, but from Paris. Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s feisty new president, was a useful ally to Ms Merkel in the treaty talks. But now he wishes to reopen more divisive issues, not least for France and Germany: strengthening the economic governance of the eurozone and seeking to define where the future borders of Europe lie. Keeping the peace between Berlin and Paris may be a greater challenge for Mr Sócrates than completing the reform treaty.