Chirac delights Major with shift in EU approach

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The Independent Online




John Major's approach to Europe received a boost at the weekend with evidence that France's position is moving closer to Britain's and signs that Germany is lowering its sights a little in the race to reform the European Union.

It was, no doubt, coincidence, but as the Prime Minister met President Jacques Chirac of France on Saturday, Le Monde gave details of two documents from Germany that seem to show the Christian Democrats - Chancellor Helmut Kohl's party - were stepping back a little from federalism.

Last year two influential CDU members, Wolfgang Schauble and Karl Lamers, produced a study calling for a "hard core" of states to forge ahead with a federal Europe, and for the EU's Commission to evolve into a European government.

Le Monde said these ambitions had disappeared from the two documents, to be published tomorrow in Berlin. Though still ahead of anything Michael Portillo and the right wing of the Conservative Party could accept, the new ideas from Germany are closer to Mr Major's vision and to that of Mr Chirac.

It will be the Franco-German couple that drives the EU's reforms of its institutions which start next year, and Mr Chirac underlined the pre-eminence of that relationship when the two faced the press on Saturday. But he also stressed that Europe could not be made without Britain, and that the three states would have to be agreed before any changes could take place.

British officials were keen to point out how well the two men had got on personally. They did look as if they understood each other, certainly far more than Francois Mitterrand and Mr Major had managed.

They shared views about the importance of national parliaments and the proposed increase in EU majority voting, said Mr Chirac. (They are for the first, against the latter).

The Prime Minister said the talk at dinner on Friday had been "perhaps the most down-to-earth and practical discussion" he had heard among European heads of government for some time. Mr Major gave the strong impression that he felt his government's concerns had been listened to and taken seriously, perhaps for the first time at a top Euro-gathering.

Mr Chirac played along admirably, speaking of "understanding the British government's concerns"; he insisted that while the Franco-German alliance was ''necessary'', it was ''insufficient'' and Europe was incomplete without Britain.

He also supported Mr Major's call to examine the consequences of introducing a single currency among only a few EU members. Two further bilateral meetings were fixed: one, it seems, a "holiday" visit by Mr Major, on 29 July, "on the occasion of a visit the Prime Minister will be paying to France at that time"; the next on 30 October, when Mr Chirac will visit Chequers.

Mr Major used expressions such as ''a breath of fresh air'', "straight talking" and "lack of Euro-jargon". Official sources described the body language as "excellent", but warned against hailing a "new dawn" in British- French relations. Nevertheless, the talks came at a time when Britain's stock in France has seemed higher than for a long time - the immediate cause being co-operation over Bosnia.

One key issue for Europe in the next five years is the single currency. The second is the future of joint foreign policy, conceived at Maastricht and still in the early stages. Both Britain and France have vestigial influence as nuclear powers, with aspirations to global reach, and neither will easily relinquish that to a common EU policy.

Military co-operation has been the bedrock of the new Franco-British relationship, and in particular their joint experience in Bosnia. Co-operation on the ground has fused with a similar view of the political situation. Britain has also moved a few steps closer to Europe by signalling more interest in joint arms production, in particular Europe's Future Large Aircraft, a projected transporter.

There is a fresh test of the relationship on the horizon, however: Britain's decision about which attack helicopter it will buy for the Army. There are three contenders: the American giants McDonnell Douglas and Bell, and the Franco-German Eurocopter. It seems all but impossible that this subject did not come up in Paris, and it was probably no coincidence that the other main topic in Le Monde was the Paris Air Show.