Bumpy start as France takes on EU presidency

/ Source: The Associated Press

France's EU presidency started inauspiciously Tuesday, with bickering between the bloc's trade chief and French President Nicolas Sarkozy and glum comments from Poland's leader about the EU's future direction.

The Eiffel Tower was illuminated in the blue and yellow of the EU flag for the passing of the EU helm from Slovenia to France for the next six months. Officially, it was cause for celebration — but there were glaring problems behind the festivities and handshakes.

Principle among those is Ireland's vote last month to reject a treaty meant to make the EU work better. Sarkozy has a personal stake in seeing the deal through because he was one of its architects. But the Irish vote has thrown the ratification process into turmoil because the treaty can only take effect in 2009 if approved by all 27 EU states.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski was quoted Tuesday as saying that ratifying the EU reform treaty would be "pointless" following the Irish rejection.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, however, insisted the treaty was still alive.

"The ratification process is continuing," he said, promising dialogue with Ireland on ways out of the impasse. "In the meantime, Europe must move forward."

Undoing the Irish referendum
French diplomats made clear they expect Dublin to somehow undo the Irish referendum outcome that now blocks EU enlargement, holds back popular internal reforms and is seen as sapping energy needed to deal with the global financial crisis, climate change and soaring fuel and food prices.

"The Irish voted once 'no' to an EU treaty" in 2001 and reversed that vote in 2002, noted one official, who asked not to be named given the sensitivity of the issue.

"We are not saying they have to do that again, but a day will come when the Irish will do what they have to do" to end the internal stalemate their latest referendum has caused, the official added.

The treaty aims to streamline the way the bloc makes decisions and to bolster its powers in such areas as immigration and fighting crime.

As France takes the EU helm, officials stressed that Paris remains firmly against EU membership for Turkey. But as it holds the EU presidency, it will allow entry negotiations that began in 2005 to continue only in selected areas that do not go to the heart of membership.

As leader of one of the EU's large nations, Sarkozy will have to tread carefully not to steamroller over smaller countries and their concerns. He also will have to put the EU's interests — not France's — first, which is a concern among critics. Sarkozy's aides say that "modesty" and "no arrogance" will be buzz words of France's tenure.

Sarkozy causing irritation
But Sarkozy's brash style was already causing irritation on Day One.

On television on Monday evening, Sarkozy slammed the EU's trade chief, Peter Mandelson, and the head of the World Trade Organization, saying they wanted to make job-destroying concessions in global trade talks.

Mandelson responded forcibly Tuesday through his spokesman, Peter Power, who said Sarkozy's comments undermine the EU's trade position ahead of high-level world trade talks in Geneva later this month.

"President Sarkozy's further attack ... is disappointing," Power said. "Such criticism is wrong and unjustified. At a difficult time in world trade negotiations, the EU needs to maintain its unity."

In the TV appearance, Sarkozy also took on the European Central Bank, which is widely expected to raise its interest rates this week amid record 4 percent inflation in euro nations. Sarkozy said raising interest rates would prevent people and companies from borrowing and investing.

Among Sarkozy's big plans for his EU leadership is a Mediterranean Union joining nations around the volatile Mediterranean rim. But some EU partners have balked at the plan, and a watered-down union will be inaugurated in Paris on July 13.