President reasons with the Euro-sceptics

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Indy Politics
Taking on the British Euro- sceptics in their own ornate back-yard, President Jacques Chirac told both houses of Parliament yesterday that France wanted and expected Britain to join the European single currency in 1999.

President Chirac said he accepted that Britain had a right to say "no" to Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). Addressing the assembled ranks of the Commons and Lords in the Royal Gallery at Westminster, he said: "The Maastricht treaty gives you absolute freedom to make up your own minds."

But he said he was personally convinced that, when the time came, Britain would recognise "the advantages and bonuses" of merging sterling into the new EU currency, the euro. "France, for its part, wants you to join us in this great undertaking."

The French President's comments came towards the end of a carefully balanced 40-minute address in which he praised British "prestige and greatness" and said that he understood why Britain was so proud of its democratic traditions and distinctive culture.

France, like Britain, he said, was devoted to the preservation of national interests and national identity. France, like Britain, intended to defend the ultimate national right of veto in the EU. France wanted to restrict the ambitions of the European Commission. But Mr Chirac said he also believed that the promotion of the common interests of Britain, France and other EU countries needed a "strong Europe, an influential Europe, a Europe capable of playing its role in the world". This could only be achieved in a "Europe in which the voice of the United Kingdom is heard".

Mr Chirac's comments on the single currency drew a predictably sour response from British Euro-sceptic politicians.

Sir Richard Body, Tory MP for Holland and Boston, said the French head of state was guilty of "a little gentle bullying". William Cash, Tory MP for Stafford, said: "It was very depressing to see President Chirac congratulating us on our democracy and then giving us a lecture on European integration and how to get rid of it."

President Chirac further irritated the Euro-phobes by making a solemn pledge that EMU would go ahead on schedule in 1999 - despite frequent British predictions to the contrary. His confidence flew in the face of a new survey by the European Commission which suggests that scarcely any EU countries are likely to meet the strict economic guidelines for membership of the single currency.

Mr Chirac said EMU was an ambitious project but also one of great promise. "The promise of a stronger single market. The promise of growth and the creation of jobs. The promise of greater cohesion and solidarity within the Union. The promise, finally, of greater influence on the global economy: the single European currency will become the world's alternative [to the dollar].

"France will be ready for monetary union. I restate to you here today my determination to respect the agreed deadlines."

"The future belongs to a Europe in which solidarity between nations is constantly strengthened," he said.

Earlier, President Chirac and the Prime Minister, John Major, spoke for two hours at Downing Street, discussing - apart from beef - the single currency, the rolling Inter-Governmental Conference on EU reform and Franco-British defence co-operation. The Prime Minister said the meeting was "extremely productive". The only formal agreement announced was an arrangement for the exchange of secondary- school pupils.

During a press conference in Downing Street itself, Mr Chirac was asked about Britain's contribution to the EU reform talks. He said he wanted to "hear the views of the United Kingdom strongly in the European system". French officials are known to fear that the negative and inflexible position forced on the Government by the Euro-sceptics could make Britain ineffective in the negotiations.

France had hoped Britain's views would form a counter-weight to the more federalist ambitions of the Germans and the Benelux nations.