Major greets new ally in EU

John Major yesterday warmly welcomed the election of Jacques Chirac as President of France, a reaction that will send a shudder down the spines of the most committed Europeans in Brussels.

Mr Major believes that Mr Chirac and his government will bring a more sceptical, British flavour to French policy in Europe compared to his predecessor, Franois Mitterrand. ''I have enjoyed working with President Mitterrand; we have occasionally had our differences ... But I think there are many ways in which Jacques Chirac and I will see Europe in the same way," Mr Major told French television yesterday.

The timing of the election has a particular historical ring to it. The European Union celebrates Europe Day today, commemorating the day in 1950 when the French Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman, launched the project of European integration at the Quai d'Orsay in Paris. But there is no guarantee that the France of Mr Chirac will have the same fervour for the European project.

The new President has blown hot and cold on Europe, sometimes wrapping himself in nationalism, at others emphasising the importance of Europe and his country's role in it.

But there is also a deeper doubt about what Mr Chirac himself believes. He will undoubtedly change in office, EU officials said yesterday, pointing to the transformation in Mr Mitterrand'sviews. The commitment to Europe, since Mr Schuman's great initiative, has been the heart and soul of France's foreign policy. But they also cautioned that France has grown more sceptical about Europe, and Mr Chirac will reflect that.

Mr Chirac received warm greetings from every European capital yesterday, none warmer than from London. "From our side of the Channel, we look forward to working closely with you and your team in all those many areas where our interests coincide," said Mr Major.

Britain has already forged closer defence ties with France, and hopes Mr Chirac will promote these. British officials believe he will oppose giving more power to the European Parliament, and will resist dropping the national veto, another key British demand.

"The actions of France have always been a deciding factor in the construction of Europe," said the EU Commission President, Jacques Santer.

The key factor will be Mr Chirac's relationship with Germany, always the driving force in Europe. Bonn was effusive about Mr Chirac, with Klaus Kinkel, the Foreign Minister, saying: "Both countries know that they are dependent on one another; we know that we are each other's most important partner."

Mr Chirac has talked about trying to weld Britain more closely into the Franco-German relationship, an ideal that Mr Major once hoped would come about by means of closer ties with Bonn but which has not materialised. Most diplomats expect the relationship to be more balanced than it was at the low point of British influence.