Sarkozy pledges support for Irish referendum


France and Germany set out plans today to shape the future of the European Union, saying they would push to keep Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and pressure Irish voters to approve a treaty.

Buoyed by their conservative parties' victories in last weekend's European parliamentary elections, French president Nicolas Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel said they would throw their weight behind Mr Barroso's bid to stay on.

"We will support Mr Barroso's candidacy without ambiguity," Mr Sarkozy told a news conference after talks with Mrs Merkel in Paris.

Mr Sarkozy and Mrs Merkel have emerged as the EU poll's victors after many of their left-leaning colleagues suffered defeats.

Mr Barroso, a Portuguese conservative who has headed the EU's executive since 2004 and whose mandate expires in November, declared on Tuesday his candidacy for a second five-year term.

Both Mrs Merkel and Mr Sarkozy said they expected Mr Barroso to produce a formal policy programme, and Mrs Merkel added that she hoped a vote on a second mandate could take place after agreement with the European parliament next month.

That would be before Irish voters will likely be asked to return to the polls to decide whether to ratify a treaty to overhaul the EU's institutions.

Ireland is the only country to have rejected the Lisbon treaty, which is aimed at introducing many of the reforms enshrined in a proposed EU constitution that French and Dutch voters threw out by referendum four years ago.

Without Irish approval, the treaty has been put on ice, delaying what Mr Sarkozy, Mrs Merkel and others say are crucial reforms such as creating a permanent presidency instead of the current rotating system and other bids to streamline decision-making.

Mr Sarkozy said his understanding was that a second Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty would be held in September or October. He said he and Mrs Merkel were prepared to get involved to help ensure the "yes" vote wins.

"Mrs Merkel and I will do everything we can to help the Irish make the choice for Lisbon," he said. "If it is of use, I would even be ready to travel to Ireland to support them."

Another threat to the Lisbon treaty could arise in Britain, where prime minister Gordon Brown's Labour Party came third behind the Conservatives and the anti-EU UK Independence Party.

The debacle dealt Mr Brown a new blow after a week of resignations from his government and calls for him to step down.

Conservative leader David Cameron has said he would hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty and recommend a 'no' vote if it had not been implemented by the time his party got into power.

Asked what would happen if the Conservatives seized power, Mr Sarkozy praised Mr Brown for deciding to ratify the Lisbon treaty in parliament rather than by holding a perilous referendum.

"We were pleased to have Mr Gordon Brown around the table in these recent months because he took his responsibilities and he acted with courage to take his country onto the path of European construction," Mr Sarkozy said.