The FINANCIAL — According to EU business, by clinching European agreement on climate change and an economic stimulus plan, French President Nicolas Sarkozy can hail success as he wraps up a six-month EU presidency marked by a series of crises.
Indeed, Sarkozy has capitalised on such dramatic events as the Russia-Georgia conflict and the financial meltdown to prod change into European institutions he has belittled as rigid.
As he wrapped up his last summit in Brussels Friday with the twin climate and finance accords, the French president was also the first to recognise his achievements, calling the climate change pact agreed to by the 27-member bloc "historic."
"We are starting to change the way we do things in Europe — talking less and doing more," Sarkozy told reporters.
"The image of Europe today is stronger than it was at the beginning of the French presidency. Events helped us."
Events did not appear promising in July when France took over the helm of the EU. Irish voters recently had rejected the Lisbon Treaty, throwing efforts to reform and streamline the bloc into disarray.
Just two weeks into his presidency, Sarkozy launched his controversial Union for the Mediterranean, bringing together European, north African and Middle Eastern nations including Israel, in a bid to foster cooperation in areas like the environment, transportation, immigration and policing.
While critics note the union was watered down from Sarkozy's original vision, some observers praised its scope, noting it helped draw Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of international isolation and put Israeli and Syrian leaders in the same room during negotiations.
"At a deeper level, here was the European Union taking the initiative in its neighbourhood…The Union for the Mediterranean is a near-empty shell but an important impulse for Europe to think big," journalist Roger Cohen wrote in a July opinion piece in the International Herald Tribune.
Then in August, Russia invaded Georgia, shaking up a normally quiet month in Brussels.
With the outgoing Bush administration showing little appetite for leadership, Sarkozy seized the occasion to head to Moscow and Tbilisi, where he secured a ceasefire agreement — although one largely in line with Russian demands.
The crisis that buffeted world financial institutions also offered the French president an opportunity to play a starring role — this time, alongside British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose political fortunes brightened with his bank rescue plan.
Sarkozy first prodded Washington to host a world summit on the crisis and then the Europeans to follow suite — despite German misgivings.
For some, Sarkozy's hard-charging persona is a stimulating break from the EU status quo.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has praised the French leader's "positive impatience" and EU Parliament President Hans-Gert Pottering "his very strong attitude."
"He has given Europe a new momentum by jostling entrenched habits and many countries are pleased with that," one European diplomat said, speaking on background.
But not everyone has been won over. The French tornado has irritate other European countries, notably Germany. Indeed, Paris-Berlin ties have unravelled over divisions on how to deal with ailing banks and the economy as a whole.
"Our falling out with Germany is a catastrophe," said former French prime minister Laurent Fabius, of the opposition Socialist party.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily similarly criticized "the way Paris has turned away from Berlin," concluding in an article Friday that "Sarkozy's new favourite is called Gordon Brown."
Still others temper their admiration for his non-stop energy with criticism that Sarkozy often acts solo and too quickly.
"A fairly imperial presidency," summed up Alexandr Vondra, deputy prime minister of the Czech Republic, which takes over the rotating EU presidency January 1.
Sarkozy's relations with China have also not fared well, with Beijing most recently scrapping an EU-China summit scheduled for earlier this month over anger at Sarkozy's meeting with the Dalai Lama.
But as he prepares to hand over EU leadership to Prague, the French president prefers to dwell on the plusses.
"I am certain that bright years for Europe are ahead of us, if we continue at this pace," he said on December 12. He would continue to leave his mark on Europe, he added, even after the French presidency ends.