Sarkozy, president of Europe?

France takes on the presidency of the European Union on July 1 for a six-month term. President Nicolas Sarkozy faces a series of thorny issues.


President Sarkozy can boast about his triumph on the constitutional treaty – and never fails to do so! This was one of his major campaign themes: breathing new life into the EU, which was paralyzed after the French and Dutch snubbed the treaty in initial referendums.

So when he succeeded in passing his “simplified” treaty project at the October 2007 Lisbon summit and secure an agreement from the 27 member states, the French president did not bother to hide his satisfaction. The text moved swiftly forward, just as he had promised, avoiding a referendum – at least in France. However, Ireland will hold a popular vote on June 12 – and a “no” vote could ruin the triumphant French presidency and send the EU back to square one. France’s precious 6-month presidency would in that case be devoted to the quest for a plan B - a plan almost impossible to find.

Brussels concerns

France’s upcoming EU presidency has raised concern and a fair deal of irritation in Brussels. Europe has become the scene of never-ending scuffles between the French president and the German leadership. Sarkozy’s repeated criticism of European Central Bank Chairman Jean-Claude Trichet annoys German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who sees it as a breach of the institution’s independence. But the biggest source of Franco-German tension is undoubtedly Sarkozy’s plan for a Mediterranean Union. Berlin is leading the rebellious group that believes the Mediterranean Union should include all EU members and that Sarkozy’s plan to focus on countries bordering the Mediterranean could lead to a new divide in Europe. All 27 EU member states will attend the July 13 summit to create the new body – an initial success for Germany. However, some are threatening to boycott the meeting, in protest against Israel’s participation in the project: this would test the Franco-German reconciliation … and we’ll find out how willing they are to find a consensus.

An ambitious programme

France has four main aims for its EU presidency – demonstrating ambition and great optimism:

1)  Re-launch European defense:  This won’t be easy without an agreement with the British, whose army remains the strongest national defence force in Europe. Furthermore, Gordon Brown is stuck deep in a delicate attempt to ratify the Lisbon treaty.

2)  Control immigration in the 27-member European Union. This is an ultra-sensitive issue, with a law under discussion that would set a 6-month limit for the detention of “irregular aliens” (the current limit in France is 32 days). Immigrant groups and churches have called the project a “shameful directive”.

3)  Stabilize the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This is another tense issue that opposes France and the UK. CAP subsidies account for some 40% of the European budget – and French farmers are the biggest beneficiary. The UK wants to review the CAP in 2008, taking into account the recent world food crisis. “Don’t you cut our subsidies!” respond the French.

4)  Signing a “climate package” that would reduce CO2 emissions by at least 20% by 2020 and by 30% if other countries launch similar attempts. This would send a significant message on the eve of the post-Kyoto discussion, which will start in 2009 – but it could be eclipsed by the debate on higher biofuel consumption – which is getting noisier and noisier.

The Turkish question


Sarkozy, the anti-Turkish president, is sending mixed messages. The French cabinet on Wednesday decided to scrap a constitutional amendment requiring France to hold a referendum for every new EU membership. The measure had been introduced by former President Jacques Chirac in a 2005 revision of the French constitution, ahead of the Turkish bid to join the EU. The paradox is that it’s Sarkozy who is scrapping the measure – although he is opposed to Turkey joining the EU. However, Sarkozy says he would organize the referendum anyway, if he is still president when the time comes.

But the Turkish integration would be on the agenda in 15 years, far beyond Sarkozy’s maximum two-mandate presidency.

Meanwhile, in less than two months, the French president’s time will come in Brussels. He will have to play his game with finesse - his counterparts are heads of state who have to be handled carefully.

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