Blair, Sarkozy Show Unity Over Europe

The Associated Press
Friday, May 11, 2007; 4:27 PM

PARIS -- You say goodbye, I say hello: President-elect Nicolas Sarkozy met Friday with outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair, showering each other with praise and making a show of European unity.

Sarkozy won Blair's backing for the budding French leader's vision of a simplified treaty to bring European Union countries closer together amid the bloc's stalled constitution.

With a new crop of leaders in Britain and France, many see this as an ideal time to forge a new, simplified EU treaty. Blair said Thursday he would step down as premier on June 27, while Sarkozy takes over from President Jacques Chirac on Wednesday.

The show of unity suggested Blair and Sarkozy might line up together at a summit of EU leaders late next month in Brussels _ days before Blair steps down. Germany, which holds the EU's presidency, has been looking for ways to overcome the impasse.

"This is the beginning of a three-way negotiation out of the European constitutional crisis," said Noelle Lenoir, a former minister for European affairs now at France's HEC business school.

The energetic and ambitious Sarkozy casts a far more U.S.- and Britain-friendly figure than Chirac, who led the international outcry against the Iraq war.

Sarkozy has called the EU constitution "dead" and favors a "simplified treaty" focusing on European institutions _ ideas more palatable to Britain, which has long been hesitant about bolder EU integration plans.

"I totally agree with that, yes, absolutely," Blair said in French in brief comments to reporters when asked about Sarkozy's idea.

Blair has said that Britain seeks changes to the EU's governing treaties that would not amount to a full-blown constitution.

France, a founding member of the EU, is in a delicate position because French voters were the first to reject the constitution in a May 2005 referendum _ possibly giving Sarkozy more reason to press for an exit to the crisis. Dutch voters too rejected it shortly afterward.

"Blair is trying to leave gracefully, but at the same time take advantage of his last opportunity to hold up European unification," Lenoir said.

Sarkozy has put free-market reforms and slashing France's persistently high unemployment among his top priorities, and praised Blair's efforts that made the British economy an envy to many French.

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