Speaking to farmers in the north of France on 29 May, Sarkozy said that he wanted to support his country's farming sector in order to ensure that Europe remained a strong agricultural power and to guarantee jobs for young people who wanted to become farmers. "This is an essential question for us and if they do not understand that at the WTO table, France will use its veto, that's all," he said.
Sarkozy's stance will disappoint both free traders in Europe and the bloc's trading partners, which had hoped that the new French president would show more flexibility than his predecessor Jacques Chirac in the Doha Round of multilateral negotiations.
The talks have been dragging on for years, largely due to disagreements between the EU and US on cutting agricultural tariffs and subsidies, and negotiators fear that talks may break down altogether if a breakthrough is not achieved by the summer.
But Sarkozy says that Europe should not make concessions in isolation. "For the moment, I cannot see the efforts made by the United States. I cannot see the effort that India is ready to make. I cannot see the effort that Brazil is ready to make," he said, referring to the main players in the talks, which are expected to meet again formally at the end of June to pursue negotiations.
The French president also criticised the negotiation tactics of Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, who represents the EU's 27 member states in the WTO talks, saying that he "does not have the political weight to stand up to colossal powers such as India, Brazil, China or the United States". He added that the EU would be better represented in trade talks by the president of the European Council, which rotates among member states.
Commissioner Mandelson – who has suggested that the EU could make cuts of up to 51% in farm tariffs, causing dismay in France, which insisted that he stick to the initial proposal of a 39% reduction – reacted to the criticism saying that Europe had "a great interest" in clinching a deal at the WTO but "not at any price". He added that he was prepared to scale back his offer if other countries failed to match it.
Legally, Sarkozy's ability to veto a final WTO deal depends on the outline of the final deal, because trade agreements are in fact subject to qualified majority voting in the Council, unless they cover certain areas, such as cultural, audiovisual, educational, social or health services, which would then require unanimity.