France casts itself as champion of new EU states

13th December 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Dec 13 (AFP) - Unprepared to trade a review of EU farm spending for a cut in Britain's annual rebate, France has positioned itself as defender of the bloc's new members in order to shore up support against London in crunch budget talks this week, according to analysts.

PARIS, Dec 13 (AFP) - Unprepared to trade a review of EU farm spending for a cut in Britain's annual rebate, France has positioned itself as defender of the bloc's new members in order to shore up support against London in crunch budget talks this week, according to analysts.

Paris's backing for the central and east European members is set to strengthen its hand at the summit, as well as deflect attention from the debate on farm aid, a key obstacle to a budget deal along with the British rebate.

"France, which seemed isolated barely a few months ago, has managed to take back the leadership of Europe by advocating the interests of eastern European members," argued Susanne Nies at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS).

Britain, which currently holds the rotating European Union presidency, is trying to secure a compromise on the budget for 2007-2013 and is set to make a new proposal ahead of the summit on Thursday and Friday.

London's initial proposals, which would have cut structural funds to the 10 new members while allowing a rise in its own rebate, were met with scorn from other EU states last week.

This has given ammunition to France which argues that last year's wave of enlargement cannot be properly funded unless Britain surrenders part of the budget rebate it secured in 1984.

"France is now in a position of support for the new members, whereas the British are in a position of refusal," said François Heisbourg, of the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS).

"Originally less enthusiastic than the British towards enlargement, France is now being more coherent by insisting that new member states receive the aid they are entitled to," he argued.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said in a televised debate at the weekend that France would "defend" the new members from what he described as a British attempt to pressure them into a cut in funding.

"When you are weak, it is always difficult to stick your head out," he said. "That is what is unacceptable. I want France to be able to defend them".

On Monday, Douste-Blazy insisted that a lasting reform of the British rebate was "the key" to an agreement.

French officials have repeatedly accused Britain of failing to act in the common interest as EU president, with one French diplomatic source describing the British proposal as "a budget made by Britain, for Britain".

But by casting the debate as a trade-off between funds for new members and Britain's cherished rebate, France has also managed to sideline the issue of the Common Agricultural Policy, the core of the problem as far as Britain is concerned.

London argues that the farm subsidy system -- which accounts for over 40 percent of the EU budget and of which France is the main beneficiary -- should be scaled down and the funds redirected towards research and development.

Britain has called for an interim spending review in 2008, which could open the door to cuts in farm aid.

But France insists that the present farm subsidy system cannot be touched until 2012 under a reform agreed by all EU members in 2002.

France has found a natural ally in Poland -- eastern Europe's largest agricultural power -- over the farm issue.

But French officials have been courting all of the new central and eastern European members, many of which were previously aligned with Britain, and Douste-Blazy insisted that France's influence was growing among them.

"Today they see France differently," he said.

The formation of a coalition government in Germany has further tipped the balance of power away from Britain, according to analysts.

New Chancellor Angela Merkel, seen as a likely British ally over agricultural reform, has been reined in by the Social Democrats and the country has turned back to its traditional alliance with France, according to Nies.

Meanwhile, Merkel's insistence on building strong ties with Poland has also helped the emergence of a budding Paris-Warsaw-Berlin alliance on key European matters, she said.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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