Cook's tour stirs Italian anxieties

Click to follow
Just over a week in power and the new British government has already made an enemy in Europe. No, for once London's emissary, Robin Cook, got on splendidly with the French and the Germans. This time, Italy is the offended party, driven into a sulk by the Continent's self-appointed rulers.

Rome is miffed by the Foreign Secretary's suggestion that Britain was ready to play a leading role in Europe, becoming one of the points in a "triangle" that would supersede the Franco-German "axis".

"Perhaps Minister Cook doesn't yet fully understand the rules of the European Union, where, fortunately, there are no leading countries and no countries are led," an Italian official was quoted as saying. He then undermined his argument by declaring: "There are four major countries, and all of them are in a position of absolute parity." Guess which is the fourth country.

Italy is entitled to its opinion, but the vehemence of its reaction merely underlines that London's pretensions are not to be dismissed lightly. However loud the second division may howl, Britain is truly back in the heart of Europe, ready to occupy the chair at the top table left vacant by the previous government.

As illustrated by this week's tripartite statement on land mines, that is political reality. All that remains is to formalise the new relationship, preferably without provoking more Italian-style outbursts.

In the wake of Mr Cook's triumphant visit, Bonn has already started moving the goal posts. Werner Hoyer, the European Affairs Minister who used to be a reliable source of Anglophobic comment, led the way into the geometry lesson: "The concept of the Bonn-Paris axis was already somewhat dangerous, because the other [countries] could easily feel excluded," Mr Hoyer told German radio the day after the Foreign Secretary's departure. "We must now be careful not to snub the others by creating a London-Paris-Bonn triangle.

"However, it is naturally a good thing that the silent alliance of the past between Britain and Germany should, once again, become somewhat louder and more visible. And if we bring that into harmony with Paris, that can only benefit the European Union and our co-operation in Nato."

It is interesting to note that, rather than slotting London into the existing relationship, Mr Hoyer appears to be looking to accommodate Paris on the revived London-Bonn axis. Though German officials would not put it so bluntly in public, Bonn is growing exasperated with its French ally, and believes it will have more in common with a Blair government.

"The major fault line in Europe lies not between Britain and Germany but between Germany and France," a senior German government advisor told The Independent yesterday. Bonn sees itself as a champion of free trade, allied with Britain on important issues, such as the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, the single market and Nato's role.

On economic issues, France adheres to rigid dirigiste policies which Germany finds outdated, and in the security domain Paris still refuses to play a team role in Nato. "If these tensions were not resolved, the whole community could come to a standstill," the official warns.

The Germans point out that the "triangle" has already been working well in Bosnia, where, after initial disagreements, the three countries took charge of the European peace-keeping effort. In defence and the development of a European arms industry, Britain is the leading force in the EU and is Germany's closest ally.

There are, of course, big areas of disagreement between London and Bonn, and between London and Paris. "We agree with Germans about policy and with the French about European institutions," says a British official.

Balancing these differences in a three-cornered relationship will make European affairs even more complex than they are today, and there are bound to be be a few surprises along the way. The closet Euro-sceptics from Scandinavia, no longer able to hide behind their British mentor, will have to come out.

And the small countries that have been complaining ever more loudly about the overbearing Franco-German axis will have to accept that the boss classes have a new member. Just don't tell the Italians.