France's six-month European Union presidency got off to a shaky start Tuesday amid bickering between the bloc's trade chief and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and glum comments from Poland's leader on the EU's future direction.
Sarkozy met with the European Commission, the 27-member EU executive that runs the bloc's day-to-day business.
He and European Commission President Manuel Barroso pledged to work together for projects that enjoy broad public support, such as measures aimed at tackling high food and fuel prices, reversing climate change, combating illegal immigration and channeling the impact of globalization.
The biggest challenge facing France at the outset of its EU presidency was Ireland's vote last month rejecting a treaty meant to make the EU work better. Sarkozy has a personal stake in seeing the deal because he was one of its architects. But the Irish vote has thrown the ratification process into turmoil because the treaty can only take effect in 2009 if ratified by all 27 EU states.
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Polish President Lech Kaczynski was quoted Tuesday as saying that ratifying the EU reform treaty would be “pointless” after the Irish rejection.
But Sarkozy told reporters he counts on the Polish leader to stick to the reform treaty that he and the other 26 EU leaders signed in Lisbon in December. He added he knew Kaczynski “as a man who never goes against his word.”
French diplomats made clear they expect Dublin to somehow undo the Irish referendum outcome that now blocks EU enlargement, holds back popular internal reforms and is seen to sap energies needed to deal with the global financial crisis, climate change and soaring fuel and food prices.
“The Irish voted once ‘no' to an EU treaty,” in 2001 and reversed that vote in 2002, said one official, who asked not to be named given the sensitivity of the issue.
“We are not saying they have to do that again, but a day will come when the Irish will do what they have to do” to end the internal stalemate their latest referendum has caused, added the official.
The treaty aims to streamline the way the bloc makes decisions and to bolster its powers in such areas as immigration and fighting crime.
As leader of one of the EU's large nations, Sarkozy will have to tread carefully not to steamroll over smaller countries. He also will have to put the EU's interests – not France's – first, which is a concern among critics.
Sarkozy's aides say that “modesty” and “no arrogance” will be buzz words of France's tenure. But Sarkozy's brash style was already causing irritation on Day 1.
On television on Monday evening, Sarkozy slammed the EU's trade chief, Peter Mandelson, and the head of the World Trade Organization, saying they wanted to make job-destroying concessions in global trade talks.
On Tuesday, the European Commission struck back with an unusual rebuke.
“Such criticism is wrong and unjustified. At a difficult time in world trade negotiations, the EU needs to maintain its unity,” the European Commission said in a statement.
On Monday night, Sarkozy also took on the European Central Bank, which is widely expected to raise its interest rates this week amid record 4 percent inflation in euro nations. Sarkozy said raising interest rates would prevent people and companies from borrowing and investing.