AFP: French President Jacques Chirac meets British Prime Minister Tony Blair here Friday to discuss Europe’s energy supplies but talks are likely to be overshadowed by Iran’s nuclear programme. by Phil Hazlewood
PARIS, June 9, 2006 (AFP) – French President Jacques Chirac meets British Prime Minister Tony Blair here Friday to discuss Europe’s energy supplies but talks are likely to be overshadowed by Iran’s nuclear programme.
The Franco-British summit — likely to be one of Chirac and Blair’s last official encounters before they leave office — comes as Iran weighs an offer by world powers of a package of benefits if it suspends uranium enrichment.
The UN atomic agency said Thursday that Iran stepped up enrichment on June 6 — the same day European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana visited Tehran to present the package.
But the Iranian government has yet to make a formal reply.
Britain and France, along with Germany, have been at the forefront of efforts to negotiate with Iran about its civilian nuclear energy programme, which Western countries fear may hide a military program to make an atomic bomb.
Iran, which says it only wants civilian nuclear power, has refused to give up its right to enrich uranium, the process which makes fuel for nuclear reactors but also the explosive core for nuclear bombs.
The talks at the French president’s official residence also come ahead of next week’s European Council meeting in Brussels, in which energy security will dominate.
Following an interruption in supplies in some EU countries, Europe is keen to diversify its oil and gas supplies from countries like Russia as well as liberalise energy markets.
Britain’s government is to publish within weeks a study of the country’s future energy needs, and is expected to propose the construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants combined with renewable energy sources to combat dwindling North Sea oil and gas reserves.
Last month, when he received a first draft of the report, Blair said nuclear energy was “back on the agenda with a vengeance”.
That signalled immediate interest from at least one energy firm in France, where there has been heavy investment in atomic energy since the 1970s, and nuclear reactors are the main source of electricity.
Meetings between Blair and Chirac have been far from smooth in recent years, particularly after the two countries’ opposing views over military action against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
On Thursday, Blair welcomed news that Al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had been killed in an air strike.
France’s foreign ministry took note of the announcement and said it hoped Zarqawi’s death would lead to a fall in violence in Iraq.
But both Downing Street and the Elysee insist that the “entente cordiale” is currently just that.
Disagreements over last year’s European Union budget have been overcome and they are working closely on a range of issues from defence to illegal immigration, both of which are likely to be discussed Friday.
Other issues at the talks, which will be attended by key ministers on both sides, include the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan, the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan and world trade.
The annual Franco-British summit is likely to be the last for both leaders.
France elects a new president next May while Blair, who has announced he does not intend to stand for a fourth straight term as prime minister, is tipped to stand down next year.