Last time we caught up with Charlemagne over at the EU heads’ meeting in Brussels, he and his fellow hacks were sniggering about some unfortunate new acronyms. As the summit drew to a close last night, he and the gang were still chuckling away (what a jolly place Brussels sounds to be) – this time at Gordon Brown’s breezy assertion to a joint press conference with the French President that “Nicolas Sarkozy is one of my best friends”.
Amid the general hilarity, though, his concluding observation was interesting:
Mr Sarkozy came across as the bigger man, full stop. At his worst, Mr Sarkozy can be maddening: playing fast and loose with the facts, bullying, cynical and boastful to the point of parody. At his best, he is a politician with a genius for seeing what is important, and detecting the moment for action.
The good Sarkozy came over today. A visiting political reporter from a British television station asked a question. Transferring money to the developing world to help them with climate change might be the right thing to do morally, he said to Mr Brown and Mr Sarkozy. But was it not time to be “honest with voters” about the cost of these measures, and their impact on growth and the economy, he asked, especially at this moment when the markets’ confidence in [Mr Brown’s] economic management was collapsing?
Mr Brown gave a defensive answer about new green services and industries, which would create 400,000 new jobs in Britain. Mr Sarkozy looked at the British reporter as if the man had just coughed up a hairball.
“What is the alternative?” the French president asked. “Think about it. monsieur. What if the richest countries do nothing to help Africa to develop… What if there were no deal at Copenhagen? You think that will not cost our economies dearly? Between Europe and Africa, the Straits of Gibraltar are 12km wide. You think we can leave them in that poverty? You think that won’t cost a lot of money? I’ll tell you what costs money, monsieur: it’s doing nothing. What causes a crisis, is the failure to act.”
In his obsession with costs, the television reporter was no doubt accurately reflecting a good chunk of British public opinion. His question will certainly not have surprised Mr Brown in the least, as was reflected in the prime minister’s reply about the profits to be made from green technology.
I admit that I am not always convinced by French arguments in favour of more public spending. But just then, the state of British domestic political debate looked a bit shameful: small-minded, chiselling, money-obsessed and generally lacking in strategic vision. Mr Sarkozy looked pretty unimpressed, and he had a point.