France takes over the rotating European Union presidency Tuesday with high hopes of forging greater European integration on matters like immigration, defense, environment and agricultural policies. But from Paris, Lisa Bryant reports for VOA the French presidency is already clouded by Ireland's rejection in June of the EU treaty.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has laid down ambitious objectives for the European Union over the next six months under the French presidency. He wants to create more unified and tougher European immigration and asylum policies toward foreigners by harmonizing EU legislation and tightening border controls. He also wants a stronger European defense - a goal that goes hand in hand with plans for France's return to NATO's military wing.
Mr. Sarkozy also hopes Europe will agree to a new EU climate change agreement and to open debate on the future of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy.
During an interview Monday night on France 3 television, the French president said it was important that the European Union protect its citizens.
A case in point, Mr. Sarkozy said was his call to cut European gas taxes, to help European drivers bear the cost of rising oil prices.
Mr. Sarkozy predicted that forging a European agreement on climate change would be the toughest goal of the French presidency.
Mr. Sarkozy said that Europe must set an example to get other countries, like the United States, China, Brazil and India, to cut their greenhouse emissions. He laid out the EU's particular goals, to cut by 20 percent Europe's energy consumption, its greenhouse gas emissions, while increasing alternative energy use by a fifth, all by the year 2020, and without sacrificing Europe's industrial competitiveness.
The French presidency comes at a time when the EU faces a crisis after Irish voters rejected the so-called Lisbon treaty in a June referendum. Ireland has been given four months to figure out its next step. Of the EU's 27 members, Ireland is the only one so far to have rejected the document, which aims to forge a closer and stronger bloc. The worst case scenario is that the treaty might be scuttled, just like the more ambitious charter that preceded it.
"It is too early to say yet whether Sarkozy will manage to find a solution by the end of December or not. That depends partly on his efforts, his ingenuity and diplomatic tact. And also, of course, on the political developments," said Thomas Klau, head of the Paris office for the European Council on Foreign Relations.
But a number of analysts believe the status of the EU treaty might not necessarily put a damper on the French presidency. That includes Clara O'Donnell of the Center for European Reform in London.
"There is very much scope for France to do a lot. They have a very ambitious agenda. They've got a lot of things they want to do - they may not do everything. But they will do some things. And of course, the Lisbon treaty will be in the background, but it won't have to dominate all the debates," she said.
Sarkozy has said before that the EU should be more responsive to European citizens and offer concrete solutions to their problems. O'Donnell believes France can respond to European concerns on issues like climate change. Others issues on the French agenda are less certain.
"EU defense - another key issue for the French-- this is something that in some European countries people feel very strongly about. In France, for example, it could get big support. But in countries like the U.K.- this is an island - this will not be seen very favorably," she said.
Sarkozy's ambitions to forge a new Euro-Mediterranean partnership between members of the European Union and North African and Middle Eastern states have also been watered down.
However, the EU presidency may offer a chance for Mr. Sarkozy to shine, after a turbulent first year as French president. His popularity has plummeted during that period, with many French turned off by his glitzy lifestyle, France's slumping economy and a sense the French leaders makes promises he cannot deliver. A successful six months at the helm of the EU might improve his image.
"It would be overstating it to say this is make or break for him -- because it obviously isn't. But his popularity record and the general perception of his first year in office...makes it particularly important for him to [have a] success," said Thomas Klau.
Still a poll published by a French newspaper in June found only a third of French believe Mr. Sarkozy's EU presidency can breath new life into the EU's embattled Lisbon Treaty.