The EU's attempt to present a united front over Ireland's rejection of its treaty of Lisbon was scuppered by an explosive row between Nicolas Sarkozy and the EU trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson.
The French President declared that Mr Mandelson was partly responsible for the "no" vote in last week's Irish referendum because he had upset Irish farmers by supporting cuts in agricultural production during talks on a new world trade deal.
Asked if the European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, was to blame for the ensuing crisis over the treaty, M. Sarkozy said: "Ireland's debate focused on abortion, euthanasia, taxation, the WTO [World Trade Organisation], agriculture. You can't blame that on Mr Barroso. Choose someone else. Mandelson, for example."
He added: "One child dies every 30 seconds because they are hungry, and we should go and negotiate within the WTO framework a 20 per cent cut in European agricultural production? Honestly, there is one person who is of that opinion – that's Mr Mandelson.
"If we want to deepen the Irish crisis, all we have to do is add to it by continuing on a totally unbalanced agreement at the WTO. That is really counterproductive."
M. Sarkozy was speaking in the margins of an EU leaders' summit in Brussels, which kept the treaty alive even though it requires approval by all 27 member states including Ireland. The Irish government will report back to the next EU summit in October on how it plans to ratify the treaty – possibly in a second referendum next year.
During the referendum campaign, the "no" campaign used posters bearing Mr Mandelson's photo, declaring: "Say No to Mandelson's WTO Deal."
However, polling for the European Commission published yesterday suggested the trade talks played little part in the referendum. The main reasons for voting "no" were a lack of information about the treaty, cited by 22 per cent of its opponents, and a desire to protect Irish identity (12 per cent).
Mr Mandelson hit back in a round of interviews, insisting that he was merely carrying out the policy of EU leaders, including the French President, in the long-stalled trade talks.
"My shoulders are broad enough and my skin thick enough to take this," he said. "France has a particular national position [in the talks] which I have to take into account but I cannot be governed by." Mr Mandelson said M. Sarkozy had "tactfully and diplomatically" chosen to blame him rather than Mr Barroso. He had been reassured that M. Sarkozy, "has nothing against me personally".
Gordon Brown, who has had a difficult relationship with Mr Mandelson since he backed Tony Blair rather than him for the Labour leadership in 1994, sprang to the defence of Britain's EU commissioner. "We need this trade deal and he is pushing for it," he said. "We support him in the excellent work that he is doing."
The EU leaders tried to turn away from their inward-looking debate over the treaty by focusing on rising oil and food prices. Mr Brown called for oil-producing nations to "recycle" their $3trn windfall from the recent hike in prices by investing in cleaner forms of energy such as nuclear power and renewables in other countries.
He said he would welcome their investment in Britain through controversial sovereign wealth funds – a move seen as a green light for oil-rich nations such as Saudi Arabia to buy up the nuclear industry.
The Prime Minister will take the EU's call for a boost in oil production to a meeting of oil producers and consumers in Jeddah tomorrow. But he played down hopes of an early breakthrough, saying that the talks would focus on the long term. "There are massive revenues being made from oil," said Mr Brown. "There is a switch of money from oil consumers to oil producers. Some of that should be recycled to invest in a more balanced energy market for the future."Reuse content