23rd Mar 2019

Big personality and big problems to mark French EU presidency

  • Not quite the presidency agenda Paris wanted (Photo: EUobserver)

On Tuesday 1 July, France takes over the EU presidency armed with a big country's sense of the natural order of things, a hyperactive president and a lengthy list of priorities.

But its six month term will operate under the twin black clouds of Ireland's rejection of the EU Lisbon Treaty as well as rising discontent among European citizens about the recent hikes in food and fuel prices.

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The Irish question will simmer throughout Paris' reign of the EU as member states try and pull off the public relations feat of making it look like the Irish vote counts but putting pressure on Dublin to put the document to referendum for a second time.

Whether they achieve this will depend as much on the way Paris conducts the talks as on the actions of Irish prime minister Brian Cowen. However, France's hopes of brokering deals on who would occupy new posts created by the Lisbon treaty – such as the EU president – have been scuppered.

French presidency Nicolas Sarkozy is set to visit the Irish capital on 11 July. The issue will come up at the October meeting of EU leaders and once again at the December summit where member states will be hoping that Dublin will set out a concrete plan of action.

Meanwhile, the worsening global economic situation is set to bring the country - as both the EU presidency as well as member state with a firm protectionist streak - into conflict with other EU partners.

During its presidency, the bloc is supposed to have serious discussions on reforming its Common Agricultural Policy but rising food prices may undermine any sense of approaching the talks with a real view for change.

Mr Sarkozy has already riled other capitals by suggesting that VAT on fuel be reduced - something the European Commission has now reluctantly agreed to look into.

Climate change

A concrete issue where progress could be made is on a climate change deal. The EU in March last year agreed a series of ambitious goals, including reducing CO2 emissions by 20 percent by 2020.

In January, the European Commission suggested how each country should contribute to these goals. Virtually every member state would like something changed in their environment package meaning it will need both good negotiating skills plus France's clout as a large member state to secure a deal.

An agreement should be in sight at the end of the year if it is to be approved by the European Parliament before it goes into election recess in Spring next year. Only with a deal under its belt will Europe will be able to go into the 2009 global talks in Copenhagen on a successor to the Kyoto agreement with any moral authority.

Defence and Mediterranean Union

In the run up to its presidency, France has made no secret of its desire to boost defence policy in the bloc. In a major speech on 17 June, Mr Sarkozy spoke of a making "the first step towards a genuine revival of European defence."

However, it is unclear how much Paris can achieve without real cooperation from Britain – the other military heavyweight in the Union. London remains opposed to plans for a European military headquarters, something Paris is particularly keen on. In addition, neutral Ireland's No to the treaty is likely to mean that France has to tone down its rhetoric on defence – particularly if Irish citizens are once more to go to the polls on the treaty.

The uncertainty created by the Lisbon Treaty means that even more focus will be put on France's idea of a Mediterranean Union as another of its major plans.

Already watered down by other EU member states for being too divisive, the Mediterranean Union will be launched at a special summit on 13 July in Paris but it is unclear how many leaders will attend - both from EU country and non-EU Mediterranean states - as well as what exactly the new set-up will achieve.

The Sarkozy factor

But despite the lowering of general expectations for the French presidency, Mr Sarkozy alone is set to generate high levels of interest.

Brussels has operated under a pall since the beginning of the year. It maintained a low-key approach in anticipation of the Irish referendum, this was coupled with the traditional quiet-before-the-storm feeling that precedes any big-country presidency.

This is likely to mean that Mr Sarkozy's more unconventional way of operating and his sheer unpredictability is set to keep the country in the headlines - even if Paris has its hands tied by outside events.

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