Page last updated at 08:00 GMT, Friday, 27 June 2008 09:00 UK

Can French flair beat EU blues?

By Kirsty Hughes
Writer on European affairs

Irish No camp celebrates, 13 Jun 08
Irish Eurosceptics will be watching France's every move

France is assuming the EU's rotating presidency, with the Irish No to the Lisbon Treaty overshadowing an ambitious French agenda.

One senior official in the European Commission says a blame game for the No vote has already begun, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy criticising both Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and the UK's European Commissioner Peter Mandelson.

"France is throwing mud at the European Commission and managing to annoy a lot of people," the official said.

A French political observer agrees that "the general climate between France and the EU is not so positive now," but adds: "the presidency priorities are fixed - energy, the environment, migration, agricultural policy and security and defence, so the Irish No does not change those".

Like many others, Richard Howitt, a British Labour MEP, argues that the top priority is to get agreement on an EU climate change package that goes beyond the Kyoto Protocol commitments.

"We will only get a global agreement post-Kyoto if Europe leads the way - not just talking, but acting," he says.

But Professor Christian Lequesne of Sciences Po University in Paris says drafting such a package will be tricky, as energy priorities "are not the same across the member states".

Pawel Swieboda, director of the DemosEuropa think-tank in Warsaw, says an early agreement on energy "is unlikely, as the differences of position are still enormous".

"The new member states feel particularly unfairly treated because they tend to rely on coal and will have to carry the burden of adjustment."

Economic woes

The difficult global economic environment will contribute to the French presidency's problems.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy
President Sarkozy says the Lisbon Treaty cannot be renegotiated

Elmar Brok, a German Christian Democrat MEP, thinks the rising costs of fuel and food are hitting poorer families "in a way we haven't seen for 30 or 40 years". He believes this will limit the EU's ability to discuss serious reforms of its Common Agricultural Policy.

"I fear it is not the moment. With rising food prices, how far can we go to weaken European agriculture and have more dependence on far-away agricultural goods?" Mr Brok asks.

Mr Sarkozy's controversial plan to discuss reducing VAT on fuel at the EU leaders' summit in October may well be set aside, a Commission official suggests, as the meeting "is now totally overshadowed by the Irish No".

Fears that a new trade deal might allow in cheap food imports - harming Irish agriculture - are believed to have helped the Irish No camp in the Lisbon Treaty referendum.

The knock-on effect of that may be to make a world trade deal harder to achieve this year, under the so-called Doha round.

Elmar Brok says he fears increasing protectionism, adding: "France is not the best placed to lead that debate". And a French political observer says France "is not satisfied with the Doha compromise and they won't push for a deal… Sarkozy will be harder on that after the Irish No".

Spotlight on immigration

France wants to get agreement on a European migration pact, focused on illegal immigration and asylum, by October.

French lorry drivers' protest, 16 Jun 08
French lorry drivers protested over high fuel prices this month

A French political observer anticipates positive results here: "It's in Sarkozy's domestic interests and he wants to show Europe can protect itself".

But Kris Pollet of Amnesty International's EU office doubts there will be much new. "The EU has already adopted comprehensive principles for its migration policy. The main potential worry is that the migration pact will re-emphasise a very restrictive approach - such as forced returns," he said.

But Mr Pollet thinks it may end up very watered-down, to be acceptable to all member states, "and then the whole thing could be forgotten by the end of the French presidency".

Irish sensitivities about neutrality may complicate French plans to strengthen the EU's defence capabilities. Mr Swieboda argues that "there is no way enhancing European security and defence policy can proceed at the same time as the Irish are seduced to vote again on the Lisbon Treaty".

Mr Sarkozy wants to develop the EU's relations with its Mediterranean neighbours at a summit in Paris on 13 July. But under German pressure this has been much watered down. A French political observer is unsure if the summit will be positive, because "if no Arab heads of state come it won't be seen as a big success".

Enlargement fatigue

EU membership talks with Croatia and Turkey will continue during the French presidency, but Mr Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have warned that no new countries can join the EU unless the Lisbon Treaty is fully ratified.

Mr Howitt says their warning is "diabolical… it blackens the mood," while a Commission official says "we are entering into enlargement warfare again".

If Turkey's political crisis comes to a head in the autumn, as many predict, with the likelihood of its constitutional court shutting down the governing party, the EU will have to respond.

British officials are warning against overreacting, but some think France could lead calls to suspend talks. Mr Swieboda argues that "EU members who are sceptical about Turkish membership prospects will jump at the opportunity".

France is not facing the positive outlook it had hoped for at the start of its EU presidency. But if by December it has got both a European deal on climate change and a solution to move beyond the Irish No vote, it may earn praise after all.

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