EU trade chief Mandelson trades barbs with Sarkozy

EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson’s accusation that French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s comments on trade talks were “undermining” him is just the latest salvo on a war of words tearing the 27-member bloc.


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Just hours into the French EU presidency, the blame game for the myriad problems plaguing the 27-member bloc ratcheted dramatically with EU trade chief Peter Mandelson accusing French President Nicolas Sarkozy of “undermining” him.


“Yes, I am being undermined and Europe's negotiating position in the world trade talks is being weakened,” said Mandelson in an interview with the BBC Tuesday, referring to the growing rift between the French president and the EU trade commissioner’s positions on farm tariffs in the lead-up to the July 21 Doha round of trade talks.


Responding to Sarkozy’s Monday night accusation that Mandelson was ready to sacrifice European farmers on the “altar of global liberalism,” the former British minister said he regretted that, “Mr. Sarkozy’s intervention last night will make it harder for me.”


It was the latest salvo in a mudslinging match that has been doing the rounds for some time now.


Earlier, Sarkozy accused Mandelson of playing a role in the June 12 Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. It was a blow delivered in the acrimonious aftermath of the Irish referendum, and for his part, Mandelson wasn’t pulling his punches, when he snapped that he was “mystified” by that remark.


Barroso under fire too


As France took on the six-month EU rotating presidency, the dossier of tricky issues confronting the bloc looks particularly heavy. And, seemingly with each issue, the much-touted unity of the 27-member bloc has been suffering the strain.


The Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, by far the biggest challenge to the EU, has sparked a round of divisive behind-the-scenes talk even as European leaders publicly issued statements about respecting Irish opinion.


European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has also stepped into the firing line, according to several British news reports, with French officials pointedly noting that under Barroso’s watch, three European referendums – in France, the Netherlands and Ireland - have swung no.


French and Dutch voters rejected the EU constitution – the previous avatar of the Lisbon Treaty – in 2005.


Barroso is widely seen as not having done enough to sway undecided Irish citizens to vote ‘Yes’.


‘A kid dies of starvation every 30 seconds’


But by all accounts, the rift between Mandelson and Sarkozy, reflecting the differing positions within the EU on agriculture and trade, has been particularly acerbic.


France has long opposed proposals for farm import tariff cuts in return for better access for European manufacturing exports in emerging markets such as India and Brazil. It’s a position that Mandelson has been forcefully advocating.


In a Monday night interview with French TV shortly before France took on the French presidency of the EU, Sarkozy linked the trade position to the global food crisis. “A kid dies of starvation every 30 seconds and the [European] commission wanted to reduce European agriculture production by 21% during World Trade Organization talks,” Sarkozy said. “This was really counterproductive.”


Counterproductive, interestingly, was Mandelson’s charge in response to critique. “Of course it makes my job more difficult,” said the EU trade commissioner Tuesday, before quickly adding, “but not impossible.”


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