BRUSSELS -- France, a leading advocate of a politically united EU, has assumed the bloc's rotating presidency at an awkward juncture that will force Paris to subjugate its ambitious plans for an EU "immigration pact" and other national priorities to the overarching need for a common EU vision.
The recent rejection by Irish voters of the Lisbon Treaty has exposed a dual, partly overlapping division within the European Union that pits old member states against new and proponents of further political integration against its opponents.
The stalemate essentially protracts a constitutional crisis set off in 2005 by France and the Netherlands, when both voted down an earlier version of the treaty.
While French policy-makers were hoping to focus during their country's presidency on issues such as immigration and defense, Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum on June 12 left them scrambling to pick up the pieces of the bloc's attempts at constitutional consolidation.
Jean-David Levitte, an adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy, told RFE/RL shortly before France took up the EU Presidency that Paris intended to press on with the Lisbon Treaty despite the Irish setback.
"There is no 'Plan B,'" Levitte said. "I believe that what is important, is that the [ratification] process [which] is in train in all the countries of the European Union run its course [which will involve] a parliamentary vote in all other countries in a manner which would enable us at the end of the process, during the French presidency, to assess where we are."
The French plans received a boost on the eve of the EU summit in Brussels on June 19-20 when the bloc's leading euroskeptic member, Britain, ratified the Lisbon Treaty.
But misgivings are becoming evident among the seven EU countries yet to ratify the treaty. At the June summit, Ireland was given until October to come up with a solution.
Meanwhile, the Czech Republic has submitted the treaty to its constitutional court for approval and a negative decision cannot be ruled out. In Poland, President Lech Kaczynski has refused to sign off on ratification, arguing it is "pointless" after the Irish result. Similarly, in Germany, President Horst Koehler has said he must await the outcome of a legal challenge to the treaty before completing the ratification procedure.
Paris has pushed for an EU "immigration pact" to be adopted at the next EU summit, in October. The EU has in recent years been besieged by growing numbers of illegal immigrants trying to reach its shores from Africa in particular.
On the other hand, a growing number of member states, facing a shrinking and aging population, feel the need for an outside labor force. But the topic remains sensitive in most EU countries, partly as a result of the integration problems of earlier, largely Muslim immigrant populations.
President Sarkozy has summarized his plans by saying that Europe must remain open to immigrants while closing off channels for illegal immigration. Officials in Paris say the French answer to the conundrum is promoting "selective immigration."
Laurent Cohen-Tanugi, the author of a recent government-commissioned report on Europe's global challenges, told RFE/RL that France is essentially pushing for greater coordination of immigration and integration policies within the EU -- where the area today largely remains a national responsibility.
"Europe will need immigration because our workforce is declining, our population is aging and we will need immigration in all the segments of the workforce [among the] most skilled people, but also less skilled people," Cohen-Tanugi said. "So we need to organize that; we need to have integration policies to be able to -- because immigration is a sensitive subject in Europe -- we need to educate our public and also make it easier for immigrants to integrate."
Much To Do
Cohen-Tanugi was emphatic in sketching out the dimensions of the problem. Apart from Europe's demographic woes, he said, the bloc must also be able to compete with the United States, which currently attracts most of the immigrant "elites." Another key task, he added, is convincing the EU's general public of the benefits of immigration.
The EU's executive, the European Commission, last year launched a "blue card" initiative aimed at attracting up to 20 million highly qualified immigrants over the next 20 years. However, the plan needs to be approved by EU member states and many remain skeptical.
Patrick Weil, Research Director at the National Center for Scientific Research, said another key French concern is standardizing EU asylum procedures. He noted that member states currently implement the same UN conventions with wildly differing results.
"Probably, in the future, there will be at the European level a sort of court of appeal for asylum, because it is completely unacceptable that you have [acceptance rates] of zero percent for some [countries of] origin in some [EU] countries and 93 percent in some other [EU] countries," Weil said.
Weil cited the example of France, where an independent judicial commission decides on asylum applications and is able to do so quickly and generally free of political pressure.
Another key French aim is the standardization of national regularization measures. Spain, for example, has repeatedly granted "amnesties" to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants -- a practice Paris says attracts more illegal immigrants who then use Spain as a bridgehead to move on to France and other EU countries.
France is also keen to promote defense cooperation within the EU and has said it intends to rejoin NATO's military command structure.
Stuck On The Border
The troubles of the Lisbon Treaty will bode less well for accession hopes among EU neighbors. France has traditionally been skeptical of enlargement and the bloc's preoccupation with constitutional issues is likely to reverse the recent apparent thaw in French attitudes toward candidate countries and other membership hopefuls.
President Sarkozy told fellow EU leaders at the June summit succinctly that there can be no further enlargement without the Lisbon Treaty.
Further down the line, Ukraine's hopes for "associate" status are now likely to be spurned at the EU-Ukraine summit at Evian on September 9. Instead, officials in Paris and Brussels say, Kyiv will be offered a "privileged partnership" -- a status specifically designed as an alternative to EU membership, already suggested by France for Turkey.
French officials acknowledge that the success of the French EU Presidency will largely depend on the country's ability to project an image of "modesty" at the EU's helm. Political integration has largely been a French project, the original EU constitution was drafted under the leadership of the former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, and although France was the first to reject it in a referendum in 2005, "deepening" the EU remains a goal that is perhaps most frequently associated with Paris.