Sarkozy-Mandelson tensions flare as WTO talks loom

2nd July 2008, Comments 0 comments

In the latest public spat, EU trade chief accuses French President Nicolas Sarkozy of undermining the European Union's position in world trade talks.

2 July 2008

BRUSSELS - With a major WTO meeting looming, EU trade chief Peter Mandelson has accused French President Nicolas Sarkozy of "undermining" the European Union's position in world trade talks.

The very public spat between the French leader and Europe's British trade commissioner cast a cloud over the debut of France's presidency of the European Union on Tuesday.

It also exposed a lack of unanimity in the European Union on trade issues as the bloc prepares for crunch negotiations on 21 July in Geneva at the World Trade Organisation, where the bloc will be represented by Mandelson.

Hitting back at Sarkozy's most recent criticism of his handling of negotiations, Mandelson told the BBC: "I am being undermined and Europe's negotiating position in the world trade talks is being weakened."

"I regret the undermining of my own position at what is a very very crucial time in the world trade talks," Mandelson said.

"This is going to succeed or fail in the coming weeks ... Our negotiating strength in Europe comes from our unity."

Sarkozy, who hosted EU commissioners in Paris to mark the start of the French EU presidency, said earlier that the media-savvy Mandelson would be loving the publicity stirred up by their disagreement.

"This is someone I have known for a long time and (he) must certainly be delighted with (the) publicity, which I don't hesitate to give him when I don't agree with him," Sarkozy said.

The French leader has long been fiercely critical of Mandelson, accusing him of offering excessively generous concessions on farming in fraught global negotiations at the World Trade Organisation.

The European Union is a heavy hitter in the WTO, accounting for nearly 20 percent of world trade, and Mandelson - a cabinet minister in his native Britain when Tony Blair was prime minister - negotiates on behalf of all its27 member states.

The latest row was sparked by Sarkozy saying in an interview on Monday that he would block any WTO agreement that would sacrifice farm production on the "altar of global liberalism."

Both Mandelson and WTO director general Pascal Lamy - a Frenchman who was the previous EU trade commissioner - "want to make us accept a deal under which Europe would commit to cutting farm output by 20 percent and reduce farm exports by 10 percent," Sarkozy told French television channel France 3.

"That would be 100,000 jobs lost, I won't let it happen," he added.

Mandelson's spokesman dismissed the charge, arguing that Sarkozy's figures were based on what would happen if Europe gave in to demands from developing countries, which he insisted Mandelson had not done.

The Doha round of trade liberalisation negotiations, launched in the Qatari capital in 2001, has long struggled, with all sides refusing to make big concessions.

Lamy, who has called a special meeting of the main WTO players later this month, says that progress on trade in agriculture and industrial products before the end July is pivotal to the overall talks.

Time is running out to make a breakthrough in the negotiations, which were supposed to be completed before the end of 2004, before the current US administration steps aside in January.

Clashes between Brussels and Paris have become commonplace over the years at each important phase of the WTO talks, with Sarkozy and his predecessor Jacques Chirac adamantly against making big concessions on farm products.

France is Europe's biggest agriculture power as well as the largest recipient of generous EU farm subsidies, which campaign groups say contribute significantly to poverty in the developing world.

Even ahead of the most recent exchange of barbs, Sarkozy accused Mandelson at an EU summit in Brussels in June of spooking Irish voters with his WTO negotiating positions, contributing to their rejection of the bloc's Lisbon Treaty in a referendum.

[AFP / Expatica]

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