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French EU presidency still aims high despite Irish ‘no’ crisis

26 June 2008-06-26

FRANCE – President Nicolas Sarkozy is still hoping to push through ambitious projects when France takes the helm of the European Union next week despite Ireland’s rejection of the EU reform treaty.

Sarkozy had hoped to concentrate the six-month presidency on key areas such as immigration, European defence, energy and climate change and his cherished Mediterranean Union project when France takes over from Slovenia on July 1.
But France will now have to spend a lot of time dealing with the institutional crisis sparked by Irish voters’ rejection earlier this month of the so-called Lisbon Treaty that was meant to streamline EU institutions as the bloc expands.

Ireland, the only EU state constitutionally obliged to hold a referendum on the charter that must be ratified by all 27 member states, rejected the treaty by 53.4 percent.
EU leaders have asked Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen to report back in October on what he thinks the best options are for the treaty.

In the meantime, France says it will not try to steamroll through a solution to the constitutional conundrum. "Forcing it (the Lisbon treaty) through won’t be on the agenda," French European Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Jouyet said this week, while also confirming that Sarkozy will travel to Ireland on July 11 to "get a sense of the discontent and questions of the Irish."

"Do they want guarantees on their neutrality, reassurance on their religious values, notably on abortion, guarantees on aid? Right now I don’t know," he admitted.
"Then we must analyse the consequences of the Irish demands, knowing that the great majority of EU member states are not in favour of reopening the treaty" for alterations, Jouyet said.

"An important part of the French (EU) presidency’s work will be to put the
27 back on the rails," he concluded. That aside, Sarkozy will also try to push through a string of projects, the most high-profile of which is his proposed Mediterranean Union, which he hopes to launch at a major summit in Paris on July 13.

The Mediterranean project aims to improve trade, transport and energy links between the EU and nations around the Mediterranean including Morocco, Syria, Israel and Turkey.
Under pressure from Berlin, however, Sarkozy’s initial proposal was changed radically to include all EU members, instead of only those with a Mediterranean shoreline.
Britain has warned meanwhile the Mediterranean Union could not be seen as an alternative to Turkish membership of the EU. Sarkozy is a staunch opponent of Turkey’s entry and advocates a "special partnership" instead.
France also wants to drive through a new European immigration pact that would ban blanket amnesties for illegal immigrants, set up a new "integration contract" for newly-arriving foreigners and introduce new rules for asylum seekers.

Additionally France hopes to secure agreement on a climate-energy package which would enable the EU to present a united front in tackling global warming and spiralling energy costs. Sarkozy has also said he will fight for his plan to suspend sales tax on oil in response to soaring fuel prices; a move which commentators say is aimed at showing Europeans the EU can take measures that directly improve their lives

The French leader has pledged to pursue efforts to build a European defence, saying, the French EU presidency will be the "first step in re-launching European defence for the coming years.” His officials have drawn up a report calling for the creation of a 60,000-strong EU force.

Sylvie Goulard, head of the French branch of the European Movement pressure group, said that "it’s probably on energy-climate and migration that we will see results" during France’s presidency." I think that the stakes are considerable and it’s probably there that we will see if the (French) presidency has succeeded or not," she said.

By Indalecio Alvarez