Chirac draws up wishlist of concrete EU projects
French president Chirac is drawing up a wish-list for new EU action in concrete policy areas under the union’s existing treaties, while urging less EU interference in some tax matters.
British papers write that French officials close to Mr Chirac over the weekend unveiled concrete elements of the French leader’s idea of a "Europe of projects", mooted earlier this year in more general terms.
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According to the French president, the EU should regain the confidence of its citizens by embarking on a series of high-profile practical measures, possible to adopt without the EU constitution rejected by French and Dutch voters last year.
Of these measures, Mr Chirac will pick "four or five" to present to EU leaders at summits in March and June, according to the Telegraph.
The proposals include an EU disaster relief force which should offer humanitarian emergency relief without relying on US logistics, a doubling of funds for the EU's Erasmus university scholarship programme, a European civil service corps for youngsters and an EU border guard force.
More controversial is a plan to introduce lessons on the EU and European values at high schools across the union.
Boosted Solana role
Mr Chirac's idea of a "Europe of projects" appears to be in line with a broader shift in EU leaders' thinking away from constitutional designs towards concrete political action, as it emerged at a recent conference on the future of Europe staged by the Austrian presidency in Salzburg.
But the French president's plans are not entirely neutral from an institutional point of view, as Mr Chirac also favours a stronger role for Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, who would be asked to effectively operate as the union’s foreign minister.
Also, Paris wishes to see some EU competences repatriated to the national level, notably in the area of taxation.
French diplomats earlier used the argument of "subsidiarity" – the idea that the EU should only interfere where absolutely necessary – to complain about the EU's refusal to allow lower VAT rates on French restaurant meals.
Mr Chirac is now set to plea for renewed national sovereignty over some EU tax matters, including VAT issues not affecting other member states, following last month's blockade by Germany of his election promise to slash restaurant bills.
Chirac and Sarkozy
Mr Chirac's initiative comes after a speech on the EU’s future earlier this month by his main political rival, French interior minister and presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy.
Mr Sarkozy favours a more institutional approach, proposing a three-stage plan for a better-functioning union.
According to Mr Sarkozy, the EU could implement a number of proposals in the constitution enjoying a "large consensus," such as the new system of voting weights, a limitation of the national veto, creation of an EU foreign minister and increased checks against overregulation by national parliaments.
Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza reports that Mr Sarkozy's advisor, Francois Fillon, announced that France also wants to start a debate on the final borders of Europe at the upcoming EU leaders’ summit in June.
"French people don't like it, that the EU has not defined how far it wants to stretch. In our opinion, the borders of Europe will appear after the accession of Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia," the French senator said.
"Further enlargement would require some kind of justification, which I don't see," he added.
The Sarkozy ally also said a re-introduction of the entire EU constitution was out of the question.
"If we came out today with a new EU constitution project, the French would see it as disrespectful toward their decision. So the strategy is, during the presidential election campaign to clear up a few internal French disputes, which are linked with Europe."