Sarkozy kicks off EU presidency with "one-man show"

Several hours before France assumes the rotating EU presidency, President Nicolas Sarkozy late Monday repeated his criticism of the way Europe has been led.

"Europe is worrying its citizens. There have been mistakes in the way Europe has been put together. We have to change the way it is being put together," Sarkozy said in a nationally televised interview that often resembled an election campaign appearance.

Among other things, Sarkozy criticized the expertise of the European Commission's fisheries experts, the EU's value-added tax (VAT) policy, the European Central Bank's refusal to lower interest rates and EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson's policy on trade negotiations.

Rather than go out of his way to make friends for what he himself said would be a difficult mandate, Sarkozy chose to defend his own policies before the French people, cementing suspicions by some French media that the French EU presidency will be a "one-man show."

Sarkozy said that of all the crucial issues he will confront in the next six months, that of the environment will be the most difficult.

He said his aim was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Europe by 20 per cent and increase the use of renewable energies by 20 per cent by the year 2020.

Sarkozy also said he wanted to introduce a so-called carbon tax on products coming from polluters so that European companies that invest in cleaning up their production are not disadvantaged.

"The planet is dancing on a volcano. We must act immediately," the French president said.

Regarding a European fishing policy, Sarkozy said he "was not against quotas, but against mistaken analyses" on threatened species by the European Commission.

He also said that he would work during his term to make the Union accept the principle "that we will be allowed to reduce our VAT."

France has long sought to reduce this tax on restaurants, CDs and videos, but has come up against stiff opposition, notably from Germany.

Sarkozy also said that the European Central Banks's (ECB) anti-inflation policy was stopping European companies from investing and expanding.

"The ECB must also pose the question of economic growth and not only that of inflation," he said, repeating a reproach he has made before.

In addition, Sarkozy said he was opposed to accepting new EU members, including applicant Croatia, if the Lisbon treaty is not ratified by all 27 members.

"There will be no enlargement of Europe if we can not reform institutions," he said.

"I want to give Europe a healthy shock," Sarkozy said. It remains to be seen if this outlook is compatible with the EU president's primary task of finding consensus among 27 members on a number of crucial issues, such as the environment and immigration.

In an interview published Monday in the daily Le Parisien, French European Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Jouyet said that Sarkozy intended to "'coach' this Europe to make it more dynamic, more lively and closer to its citizens."

"The (European) Commission will win if it becomes more flexible and less dogmatic," said Jouyet, who has been Sarkozy's top envoy in the run-up to the French EU presidency.

The European Commission responded diplomatically to the comments, with a spokeswoman saying that the body was "looking forward" to the presidency.

"On the contrary, we feel more dynamic than ever," commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said when asked if the body felt that it was suffering from a lack of dynamism.

"Of course, working with Mr Sarkozy will only enhance that dynamism, so we are very pleased and looking forward to the next six months working with the French presidency," she said, according to dpa.

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