France promises ‘citizen-oriented’ EU Presidency

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The upcoming French Presidency of the EU will adopt a citizen-oriented approach in an attempt to reconcile Europe and the French population, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and European Affairs Secretary Jean-Pierre Jouyet said. EURACTIV France reports.

‘Reconciling’ Europe and French citizens 

Kouchner identified the French Presidency as an opportunity to “reconcile Europe with French citizens”. 

“We have to make sure that the French come out of these six months with the feeling that Europe can do more for them, that it can embody their future and that of their children,” he said, announcing that conferences and debates would be held across the country to allow citizens to have their say. 

‘Citizen-oriented’ 

“The French presidency will be citizen-oriented” and “will have to be marked by reconciliation between the French and Europe,” Jouyet said as early as September 2007. 

Yet according to an internet survey carried out by Touteleurope.fr between 24 January and 10 March 2008, 63% of citizens do not think that the Presidency will bring Europe closer to the French population. 

To capture the interest of French citizens, a scheme to promote debate and disseminate information on EU themes, entitled ‘Paroles d’Européens!‘, will be launched in Marseilles on 13 June 2008. But only three of the original eight proposed regional conferences have been retained, sparking criticism in France. 

The Touteleurope.fr survey also revealed that 43% of French citizens believe information and debate on the EU would reinforce European citizenship. 

‘Proposing and convincing’ 

Declaring himself proud of the European construction’s “re-launch” in France as marked by the signature of the Lisbon Treaty, Kouchner said the institutional innovations introduced by the text – notably the nomination of a High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy and the establishment of a two-and-a-half-year term for a permanent EU President – means the upcoming French EU presidency will have the opportunity to “propose and convince” by becoming “Europeans’ spokesperson”.

‘Proving detractors wrong’ 

“The EU presidency’s objective is not to impose our ideas, but it is about working on and putting forward the ideas of others,” Kouchner stressed, in a move possibly aimed at placating critics of France’s behaviour in the run-up to its presidency. 

Commentators in Brussels and across Europe alike have accused the country of adopting an arrogant attitude, symbolised by the number of announcements it has made during and even ahead of the Slovenian EU Presidency. 

Kouchner cited an informal dinner that gathered the 27 EU foreign affairs ministers on 13 May 2008 at the Quai d’Orsay – the second such event ahead of its presidency – and bilateral visits to all 26 of the other EU countries which have occurred since the start of the year as evidence that the French “will to do everything to reconcile the member states’ points of view”. 

Energy, defence, agriculture among priorities 

Kouchner told the conference that the French EU Presidency’s priorities will be energy, the fight against climate change, immigration, Europe’s defence policy, financial regulation and the future of the Common Agricultural Policy. In both the energy and climate change areas, the French presidency clearly has “an obligation [to provide] results,” he noted. 

Immigration controversy 

Immigration features among the more controversial of the French Presidency’s priorities and attracted considerable interest during the press conference. Though nothing has yet been specified as to the content or legal impact of a possible European immigration pact, Kouchner underlined the “warm welcome” afforded to the initiative when it was announced by French Immigration Minister Brice Hortefeux. 

Kouchner has often opposed French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s position on this issue, notably concerning the regularisation of those without working papers, stressing his preference for maintaining an “open and pluralist Europe” – especially as it is the will of other countries, and especially Spain, to set up a common EU charter on immigration. 

Serbian election result ‘welcome’ 

Kouchner welcomed the nationalists’ defeat in Serbia’s elections on 11 May and indicated that the French EU presidency would provide an opportunity to give Serbia a “strong European impulse”. 

Romanian Secretary of State Raduta Matache stressed the powerful influence French diplomacy had on persuading Serbia to sign a pre-accession Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU. 

Notre Europe Secretary General Gaétane Ricard-Nihoul argues that "the great scope" of the 'Paroles d'Européens!' project "has been reduced but it is still there", while Robert Schuman Foundation President Jean-Dominique Guiliani described the initiative as "excellent". 

Notre Europe's Ricard-Nihoul added that "traditionally a presidency is the time to have a debate in the country chairing it". 

But political scientist Dominique Reynié believes that although an EU presidency is "undeniably an occasion for public debate", this should not be one of its functions as such. 

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and European Affairs Secretary Jean-Pierre Jouyet were speaking at a press conference convened on 13 May, fifty days ahead of the beginning of their country's EU Presidency. 

France will assume the bloc's six-month rotating presidency on 1 July 2008, taking over from current holders Slovenia. As early as August 2007, Jouyet had announced that the French Presidency will focus on stimulating growth and employment, the future of Europe, boosting Europe's influence on the international scene and the protection of citizens (EURACTIV 30/08/07). 

But Kouchner had previously been slow to speak out on the issue over the past year. 

  •  1 July – 31 Dec. 2008: French Presidency of the EU. 

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