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Analysis: Bad start for Sarkozy's EU Presidency

  • Story Highlights
  • Sarkozy last year helped to rescue the EU's new constitution
  • Will now be forced to trek to Dublin, Prague and Warsaw to re-salvage constitution
  • Sarkozy is clashing once again too with the European Central Bank
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By CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Nicolas Sarkozy had intended to take Europe by storm with an exciting new agenda when France inherited the six-month revolving presidency of the EU on July 1. Instead he is being buffeted by storms of others' making, forced into a patch-and-mend role on the European constitution.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

French President Nicolas Sarkozy attends a meeting on competitiveness in Limoges, France.

In an outward show of unifying Euro-enthusiasm the Eiffel Tower was emblazoned with the EU's blue and gold stars. The European flag billowed around the Arc de Triomphe. But in the corridors of the Elysee Palace there were dark mutters about irritating Irish, curmudgeonly Czechs and pesky Poles. For Europe is far from united.

Along with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, it was President Sarkozy who last year helped to rescue the EU's new constitution, re-packaged as the Lisbon Treaty. But just before France took over the EU leadership Ireland's voters, the only electorate in Europe given the chance to vote directly on the Treaty, rejected it by 54 per cent to 46.

The Czech Republic's Eurosceptic president Vaclav Klaus duly pronounced the treaty dead. And then, provocatively on Day One of Sarkozy's term of office Poland's President Lech Kaczynsky announced that he would not be signing the Treaty which has already been ratified by the Polish Parliament. Certainly not until it was clear what Ireland would do next.

So Sarkozy, instead of launching a new agenda including initiatives on energy security, European defense and illegal immigration, plus an ambitious plan for a new union of all the countries bordering the Mediterranean, will now be forced to trek from Dublin (on July 11) to Prague to Warsaw in an effort to re-salvage the constitution.

There has been a fractious start to his six months in other ways. Sarkozy has become involved in a spat with EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, whom he accuses of selling out Europe's farmers in world trade talks negotiations and whom he seeks to blame for the Irish referendum result. "Nothing" he insists "will make me accept a cut in farming production on the altar of global liberalism."

Mandelson's team have hit back, saying that the EU needs a unified approach on trade and that 'food protectionism does not feed the world'. Even Mandelson's arch-rival in domestic politics Gordon Brown has defended the Trade Commissioner's performance and pointed out that he is negotiating on a mandate agreed by the 27 EU countries.

Some EU leaders reckon too that the warnings in advance from Sarkozy's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner that the Irish would be the biggest losers if they rejected the treaty and his finance minister's talk of unifying Europe's business taxes (Ireland's boom has been built on low business taxes) contributed even more to the Irish 'No' campaign.

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Sarkozy is clashing once again too with the European Central Bank, declaring that any hike in Eurozone interest rates will stifle European growth and do nothing to curb Europe's rising inflation.

The French President's attempts to assert political control over the ECB have been strongly resented by Chancellor Merkel, who is alienated by his touchy, feely style when they meet and who is deeply suspicious too of the plans for a new 'Mediterranean Union' he announced the very night he was elected as France's President.

Already fearful that the EU itself would be undermined by such an organisation, she has forced him to water down his scheme. And some Mediterranean countries have begun voicing their criticisms. Libya and perhaps Algeria seem ready to pull out of the grand meeting Sarkozy has planned of all the Mediterranean states on July 13. Turkey has made plain its suspicion that the Union is no more than a French plot to frustrate Ankara's aim of eventual EU membership.

Sarkozy had hoped to work for the unification of business taxes and of immigration policy in Europe and to build up a European defence dimension at the same time as taking France back into the NATO military command. He campaigned without success ahead of the latest Brussels Summit for EU-wide cuts in VAT duties on fuel. And he wants to get the EU countries to commit at their December summit to deeper cuts in CO2 emissions and more ambitious plans for boosting renewable energy sources. But how much of his programme he will achieve will now depend on the time and energy he has to expend on Europe's renewed constitutional crisis.

One of the first tests will be on immigration. A new European 'pact' is due to be presented on July 7 , providing for more shared information on illegal immigrants, tighter border controls and extra help for countries on the EU's outer fringe. But the EU has been talking about enhanced co-operation on immigration policy since the 1990s without achieving a common policy.

The Sarkozy master plan for the EU on that and other "bread and butter" issues on which he would like it to concentrate will be unveiled to the European Parliament on July 10. Just to underline his problems that is the day before he heads to Dublin to seek to persuade the Irish to vote again on the Lisbon Treaty.

All About European UnionIrelandAngela MerkelNATO

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