EU summit backfire sets up for bumpy climate ride

Ahead of the European Union's regular autumn summit, diplomats had sketched out a beguilingly simple agenda: the EU's heads of state and government would sit down to dinner in Brussels, discuss a set of principles on how to fight climate change, and agree to finish the job in December in a ride as smooth as a presidential limousine, reported dpa.

But the explosive mixture of international financial turbulence, offended European sensibilities and Machiavellian national politics caused the diplomatic machine to backfire dramatically.

And that backfire leaves the French government, current holder of the EU's rotating presidency, facing a rough ride if it is to forge a deal on flagship EU laws on fighting climate change in December.

"It was understandable what the presidency tried to do, but maybe it was always unlikely that it would work," Simon Tilford, chief economist at the Centre for European Reform in London, said.

"The presidency tried to pre-judge several elements of the debate, but that clearly was not on," Delia Villagrasa, climate-change expert at environmental group WWF, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

In March 2007, EU states agreed to cut the bloc's carbon-dioxide emissions (CO2, the gas most tied to global warming) to 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. In January, the European Commission, the EU executive, proposed laws on how each member should contribute.

Ahead of the Brussels summit the French presidency, which holds the EU's steering-wheel until the end of the year, proposed a draft summit declaration committing member states to a December deal on the laws and a set of principles on how they should be implemented.

EU officials say a quick deal is vital if the EU is to maintain its influence at international climate talks in Copenhagen in December 2009.

But France's move provoked outrage in the EU, with Finnish premier Matti Vanhanen accusing the presidency of preempting the debate.

As the summit opened, France was forced into reverse, dropping the idea of getting EU support for its guidelines on climate change.

And within hours the situation approached crisis. Poland's President Lech Kaczynski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who are currently fighting a no-holds-barred battle for power at home, both threatened to veto the declaration if the December deadline stayed.

Simultaneously, eight Central and Eastern European states led by the Poles issued a statement accusing the commission and presidency of failing to take their economies - the EU's poorest - into account.

And then Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi joined the row, saying that the whole idea of an EU climate deal was wrong unless the rest of the world joined in, especially at a time of economic crisis.

France now faces the task of winning over the rebels at a time when it has already antagonized them with its perceived attempt to bulldoze through the debate - and in the midst of financial crisis.

"Maybe we haven't done enough so far to look at the specifics of individual states," French President Nicolas Sarkozy admitted late on Wednesday night.

"Europe is facing a recession, perhaps a prolonged one. Against that backdrop, EU governments are even more determined to ensure that their red lines are not crossed," Tilford told dpa.

Observers do hold out some grounds for hope. They point out that Poland is set to host global talks on a new climate-change deal in December, and is already under domestic pressure to justify a stance which commentators see as jeopardizing its credibility as host.

Another influential Central European state, the Czech Republic, is set to take over the EU's presidency in January, with Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek saying that his government would be happy if a deal were reached before he climbs into the EU's heated driving seat.

And many commentators say that Italy, an EU founder, is unlikely to veto a deal as long as it wins concessions for its industry.

But that still leaves at least half a dozen unhappy countries to placate, with each one capable of torpedoing a potential deal.

After its spectacular backfire in Brussels, the French government will have to do some serious road-works if it is to get the EU's climate-change plans back on track - and on the road to Copenhagen.

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