Tory split threatens start of a beautiful friendship

Europe/ a new Entente Cordiale
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THIS IS A TALE of two cities, Paris and London, but also of two men: Jacques Chirac and John Major. Between them a new alliance had been emerging. Now the bitter in-fighting in the Conservative Party has put it in question.

Tomorrow, when the European Union holds its summit in Cannes, the meeting will present the intriguing double act of Mr Chirac, a man whose party now controls every level of the French state from the communes to the Elysee Palace; and Mr Major, fighting for political survival, with his party split top to bottom. The future of their relationship has been jeopardised by the high-stakes game being played out in Westminster, and that could make Conservative problems over Europe still greater.

Depending on which side of the Pacific you sit, Mr Chirac is either a "breath of fresh air" (Mr Major) or an example of "Napoleonic-De Gaulle arrogance" (Don McKinnon, the New Zealand Foreign Minister.) His decision to resume nuclear tests has outraged many countries, but won respect on the right wing of the Conservative Party. It seemed yet more evidence of a man devoted to the pursuit of national interest and less concerned than his predecessor with building European castles in the air.

From the day of Mr Chirac's election, the Prime Minister was eager to get things started on the right footing. "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. His recent bilateral meeting with Mr Chirac went well, with Downing Street officials drawing attention to the "body language".

Bosnia has been the crucible where the new Entente Cordiale has been forged. As the two largest contributors to the UN force in Bosnia, Britain and France together took the decision to launch the new rapid reaction force. Their diplomacy has been carefully co-ordinated, and military co- operation has created a new understanding.

But the shift in Europe's political geography in the post-Cold War era has also contributed to a new openness in Paris to an alliance with Britain. France has drifted away from Germany since the Maastricht Treaty was agreed in 1991, and under Mr Chirac the attitude in Paris to EU reform has edged much closer to that of London. Britain and France rejected the ideas for a "hard-core" Europe developed by Karl Lamers and Wolfgang Schauble, influential members of Germany's ruling party. Neither welcomes increased majority voting over defence and foreign policy.

None of this means the Franco-German relationship is dead, though it is going through a difficult phase.

"The Chirac version of Europe is certainly not that of the Lamers-Schauble paper," said Jacques Rupnik, of the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationale. "But it is not that of the British Government either - whatever that is," he told a conference of the 21st Century Trust in Strasbourg yesterday. He explains this paradox rather neatly: "It is closer to Europe a l'Anglaise, but he would rather do it with the Germans."

Mr Chirac was careful when he welcomed Mr Major to Paris to say that France's alliance with Germany was "necessary" for Europe, if not sufficient. And Klaus Kinkel, the German Foreign Minister, said when Mr Chirac was elected: "Both countries know that they are dependent on one another, we know that we are each other's most important partner."

Mr Major is trying to establish a different kind of partnership with Paris - not permanent dependence, but a tactical alliance over political and security matters. It is parallel to the link he has tried to maintain with Germany on economic and trade issues. However, France and Germany are concerned that the relationship with Britain will be characterised by what one British diplomat calls "detrimental reliance" - where one partner is damaged by trusting the other.

Britain, with its bizarre political zig-zags over Europe, is not an easy country to rely on at the moment. French officials say that while the relationship works well on Bosnia, on EU matters they never know what horror lurks around the corner. "We are not dealing with a normal situation," says one. The current manoeuvres will accentuate that. Douglas Hurd is the man who has built the new Anglo-French understanding. He maintains the delicate balance between Gaullist nationalism and involvement in Europe which is its motor. But his successor will not find it so easy.

Tomorrow's Cannes summit is the beginning of an important period for the EU. Deals will be done on sharing out aid for Central Europe and the rest of the world. A plan will be agreed to set the groundwork for the entry of new states from the East. Most important, the Inter-Governmental Conference to reform the Maastricht Treaty begins next year.

France knows that reform of the EU is necessary before it enlarges to take in five, 10 or more new members. Both French and German diplomats have warned in the last weeks that if Britain makes that reform impossible, if London refuses to compromise, there is a possibility that Mr Chirac and Helmut Kohl will forge ahead together. Then once again it will be a tale of two cities; but they will be Berlin and Paris.