Czechs Affronted by French Auto Protection Stunt

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 2/11/2009 08:29:00 AM
Commenting on how national character affects international economic diplomacy is a tricky act. Some would say it's a futile one. Nevertheless, I do believe that what we have here is a genuine case of miscommunication between the Czech Republic and France. Recently, French President Nicolas Sarkozy bad-mouthed French automakers relocating production to Eastern Europe to cut costs, spurring the current row. Before I get to that, let me digress a little. A Yanqui teacher I once had spelled out what most are probably aware of about the American national character: their primary interest is in commerce. People have often misunderstood this passage from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations to promote Gordon Gekko-style selfish behavior:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.
More thoughtful Adam Smith scholars do not see this as license for self-interested behavior. Rather, it is very much others-regarding in that the protagonist here is concerned not with cadging his neighbor but being able to offer a fair deal in return. In a similar fashion, Americans have often been accused of crass commercialism or mercenarial spirit. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have found dealing with Americans to be very straightforward once you understand this. Like Adam Smith intoned, commercially-oriented society is very much about "you scratch my back, I scratch yours." There are excellent reasons why the liberal international economic order is largely by American design as many others have bought into this reasoning. Sure, the US tries to get the better of everyone once in a while, but its interests in maintaining this economic order precludes it from getting too cute. Witness Obama backtracking on "Buy American." At heart, Americans are not mean-spirited people.

This lengthy digression leads me to the French. In contrast to their American counterpart, the French national character is more challenging to decipher. I have commented at some length on how French diplomacy aims to couch self-interest in the rhetoric of altruism [1, 2]. Like the British, the French are in some measure still trying to deal with a loss of clout on the world stage. Whereas the British try to influence American policy to get what they want, the French have thought of the EU as their stomping ground for a project to make Europe an alternative to American hegemony (or whatever is left of it).

The problem is that the French regularly push the limits of getting too cute. In this case, they have offended the current rotating head of the EU, the Czech Republic. A word on Czech national character is in order here. The Czechs have long been bossed around by their powerful neighbors, forcing them to cope in novel ways:
The Czech Republic is a small country, centrally located, continually occupied, oppressed, and overshadowed by larger neighbors (first Austrians to the south, then Germans from the west, and finally Russians from the East). Only the Jews have a more acute sense of historical persecution or as black a sense of humor.
My Czech friends have many endearing qualities, combining German concern for efficiency with decidedly non-German warmth of character. Plus, what higher compliment can you give to a nation that saw it fit to make Frank Zappa [!] a national advisor of sorts during its transition from the Communist era on the finer points of capitalism in general and trade in particular?
Then, in January 1990, Vaclav Havel appointed Frank Zappa as "Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism," much to the disgruntlement of U.S. Secretary of State, James Baker, who is famous for declaring: "You can do business with the United States or you can do business with Frank Zappa" [!!!] Still, Vaclav Havel's friendship with Frank Zappa grew, and Zappa shared his ideas about increasing tourism to Czechoslovakia, and explained the concept of credit cards which were then an unknown quantity in this part of the world. It was Frank Zappa's brief interlude in the world of international trade and diplomatic relations— and the vantage-point was Prague.
You can't make this stuff up; the Czechs really are that cool. What Jim Baker obviously missed was that Zappa himself was, despite all his alt-culture stylings, a good American capitalist at heart. Remember, we're only in it for the money. Needless to say, I don't think the French *get* Zappa--as much an American icon to the rest of the world as George Washington and Garfield the Cat. Which brings me to the conflict here. Whereas an Angela Merkel knows how to humor then dismiss Sarkozy and his zany protectionist ideas, the Czechs are still coming to grips with how to do this. Despite being the current EU head, the Czechs are simply unused to being in a position of power unlike their French predecessors in the post. From the IHT:
An emergency European Union summit meeting on the economic crisis was announced Monday after a fierce public rift between France and the Czech Republic prompted accusations that Paris was promoting protectionism and undermining Europe's single market.

In Prague, Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek of the Czech Republic, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, made a rare and blunt attack on a fellow leader after President Nicolas Sarkozy last week criticized French car companies that relocate to Eastern Europe to cut costs...

Sarkozy's "protectionist" comments threatened ratification of the EU's Lisbon Treaty in the Czech Republic, Topolanek said...The bitter infighting highlights tensions over Europe's response to the financial crisis and underlines fears in some quarters that France will use the downturn to undermine market and competition law inside the EU, which is the world's largest trading zone...

Amid the bitter infighting, Topolanek and the European Commission on Monday rushed out an announcement of the emergency EU summit meeting - without a date or definite venue - to preempt any attempt by Sarkozy to claim credit for setting up such a meeting.

Hours later, the Élysée Palace released the text of a joint letter written with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in which Sarkozy called on EU leaders "to meet informally in Brussels by the end of this month to jointly assess the situation." It also called for EU governments to tackle the toxic assets on bank balance sheets that have crippled lending in the European economy.

Public feuding between the country holding the presidency and a major European nation is rare. But the tension has been building for weeks, and Czech officials suspect the Élysée of inspiring a series of articles in the French press critical of their leadership.

At a news conference in Prague on Monday, Topolanek said Sarkozy's attitude risked provoking a series of "beggar thy neighbor" actions to protect national economies. It was, Topolanek said, "the really selective and protectionist steps and statements of, among others, President Sarkozy that led me to the intention to call this extraordinary council" of EU member states. "It is these kind of statements, made by some European statesmen, that will lead to a higher level of protectionism among individual states, which will absolutely undoubtedly lead to an escalation of similar actions and in the end only extend the crisis," he warned, the Reuters news agency reported from Prague.
Pressure from France is understandably strong. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Topolanek should probably not make too much of Sarkozy's latest melodramatic fit. Merkel ought to tell the Czechs how to defuse French aggression. Sarkozy is just trying to rattle the new guy into making unwarranted concessions for France. After all, the Czech Republic is in the driver's seat now unlike during the majority of its history. As the late FZ would probably advise the Czechs, Sarkozy is just like Uncle Meat.