A relationship that mellows with age

No two countries are more alike than Britain and France, as Jacques Chirac begins his state visit
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President Chirac arrives in Britain this week in the mood of a man visiting a sick friend. The sickness is not physical: there is a grudging admiration on the Continent for the relative vigour of the British economy. Nor is the sickness the maladie de la vache folle. Whatever the Daily Mail may believe, there is no European schadenfreude at the plight of Britain's farmers. (There is a selfish, if understandable, determination to shore up continental beef sales, which have been stricken harder by the BSE scare than the trade in beef in Britain.)

The true sickness in Britain, seen from the eastern entrance to the Channel tunnel, is a psychological one. An old enemy, turned ally and partner, has been seized by a strange dementia: a paranoid delusion that bossy foreigners are plotting to swarm through the tunnel and abolish the British way of life. Worse, the mania has spread like ebola through the body and brain of the ruling party, at just the moment when it seemed that Britain and France might form a tactical partnership in the shaping of post-Soviet Europe.

There are no two countries in the world more alike than Britain and France. Both are convinced that their history is the world's history and their culture should be the world's culture. Both are medium-to-large economic powers which have lost an empire and found a seat on the UN Security Council. Both are determined to hang on to their nuclear deterrent, like a child's security blanket. On his last visit to Britain, in December, President Chirac signed a document with John Major which declared that the two nations could not imagine a threat to the vital interests of the one, which was not also a threat to the vital interests of the other. On this occasion, the two leaders may announce additions to the thriving Franco-British co-operation in defence, including a limited partnership between two proud navies, maritime rivals long before Trafalgar.

On almost all items of day-to-day business the two countries get on well: why, then, do we have such divergent views on Europe? Put another way, does France provide a model of what a more constructive British EU policy might be?

The former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing says he has some sympathy for British exceptionalism, rooted in a different history and a different geography. But, in the end, he believes Britain is getting the worst of both worlds. "You have joined the Community but you have never really convinced yourselves that you want to take part in it. We are both very old countries, with pride in our cultures. Could we survive alone in the modern world? Clearly we could not. The French view is that we must define precisely what areas of life we want to keep to ourselves and what should be surrendered to the Community. The British position is that you join, then you complain. This is not a very creative position, always to be a reluctant member."

President Chirac, making the first French state visit for 12 years, has changed the tone of French EU policy. There has been none of the Euro- vaporising of Francois Mitterrand. A United States of Europe is off the agenda, even rhetorically. This has been uncomfortable for the Germans, forever suspicious of a revival in Gaullist nationalist ambitions.

At the same time, Chirac has disappointed those British right-wingers who believed - foolishly - that he would shift France towards a helpfully Euro-sceptic viewpoint. Chirac, like any French politician, accepts the importance of the Franco-German relationship as the foundation of the post-war domestic politics of both countries. Officials and commentators in Paris say that Mr Chirac considered the possibility of abandoning or postponing Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) but concluded that it would damage Franco-German relations too much.

In truth, Chirac's Europolitique is pretty close to what the French position has always been: from de Gaulle, through Giscard to Mitterrand. France does not see Europe in the traditional German way, as a means of transcending or muffling suspect nationalism; nor in the British way, as a competitor for power and sovereignty. France sees the EU as a kind of cue-extension of French power and influence.

According to the British tabloid demonology, France is engaged in a plot with Germany to render all of Europe as cheerlessly standardised as an airline breakfast. France? The country with 360 different kinds of cheese? Anyone who has lived in France, or spoken at length to an articulate French person, or read a French newspaper, would find this proposition absurd. Anyone who has worked in Brussels knows how hard, and craftily, France fights within the EU to defend its national corner.

Unlike Britain, France identifies and defends national interests while simultaneously believing in European interests and the importance of strong European institutions. To Britons, this looks like hypocrisy. To the French, it is a sensible dualism: an acceptance of the need to divide and share political power in a diffuse and awkward world. France accepts marriage with Europe but reserves the right to have affairs on the side. As Giscard says, Britain has never, in her heart, accepted the principle of a supranational, institutional EU: it has always hankered after a looser, more co-operative arrangement: it wants from Europe not a marriage, but at most a series of flirtations.

Bearing in mind this distinction, it is interesting to look at the views of the present British and French governments on how the EU should develop into the next millennium. They are not as far apart as one might imagine. The French submission to this year's rolling Inter-Governmental Conference on EU reform went down relatively well in Britain: the British White Paper was well received in Paris.

Britain and France disagree about extending majority voting in the Council of Ministers (already the rule, not the exception). France is in favour; Britain against. In truth this is a marginal, almost technical question. But it is symbolically important for Germany and the Benelux; and for the British Euro-sceptics.

In other areas, Britain and France mostly agree: both are against further powers for the European Parliament; both oppose majority voting on foreign and security policy; both are against bringing internal security issues, such as drugs and immigration, into the EU treaties proper. The White Paper confirms what the French had hoped for: that Britain could be a useful counterweight to Chancellor Kohl's more sweeping federalist ambitions. Hence French disappointment that Britain's influence in the IGC will be so limited. Influence depends on negotiation and Britain's negotiating hand is frozen by the Euro-scepticaemia in the Conservative party.

On European defence policy, the two countries are closer than at any time since the Second World War. This is partly the fruit of co-operation in the Gulf and Bosnia. Chirac has switched away from the traditional French policy of pushing for a European defence identity outside Nato; he now wants a European defence identity inside Nato. Britain and France - the only serious military powers within the European Union - are working together closely to develop the long-moribund Western European Union as a European wing of the Atlantic Alliance and loose security wing of the EU. The idea is that the WEU should be capable of operating separately from Nato, but with US blessing.

In the longer term, British and French defence ideas may diverge. France wants EU summits to have direct political control of this newly empowered WEU. The Chirac government even talks of the WEU being absorbed, some way down the road, into a fully-fledged EU defence policy. Both ideas go too far for this British government. None the less, the new military entente cordiale flourishes in numerous ways, some public, some very secretive, including a shadowy nuclear committee, which shares operational information in a manner that neither Britain or France is prepared to discuss.

There is, however, one considerable sticking point: Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). The French political elite - from the Banque de France to the Elysee - is determined to push ahead with the single currency, whatever the dangers. The French business community seems to have swallowed its doubts. French public opinion enjoys the grand sweep of the project but does not appear to have grasped that it means losing the franc; when this is pointed out to them, a large majority of French people say they are against it.

French officials like to stress the practical, rather than Euro-visionary arguments for a single currency: the lower interest rates, the currency market stability, the boost to trade. It causes amusement in Paris that right-wing British commentators and politicians criticise France for pushing ahead, at a time of high unemployment, with the "deflationary" economic medicine needed to achieve EMU. Is this not precisely what Margaret Thatcher did in the early 1980s? French officials say that the EMU-driven reductions in public spending and attacks on welfare excesses ordered by the Chirac government are necessary for the long-term health of the French economy.

Former president Giscard is adamant that EMU will happen - even if the Maastricht numbers are not precisely met - because the political damage from stopping the project would be too great. Another senior French official says: "It will happen. This is a political issue, not a financial issue."

Put another way, the political momentum for EMU may have become too strong to resist, whatever the practical dangers. EMU remains a high-risk venture. There is good reason - from a Euro-positive or Euro-realist viewpoint - for fearing that France and Germany may overreach and seriously damage support for Europe in domestic public opinion.

A senior French official, hearing this argument rehearsed in Paris recently, dismissed it - affectionately - as typical of British attitudes to Europe. "In 1930 the French invented the World Cup," he said. "Britain scoffed and said it could never work and anyway we're the only ones who can play football. You joined in 1950. In the 1950s we invented the European Cup. You wouldn't take part for several years. In 1957 two Frenchmen invented the Common Market. Britain said it would never work and anyway we're not interested. You joined in 1973. It will be the same with the Single Currency. When you see it working, you will join. You will feel obliged to join. We understand that; we respect that; we can wait."

A commonly expressed French view is that all will change after the next British election, no matter who wins. Britain, under Tory or Labour, will be able to take a more constructive view of Europe. Shared cross-Channel interests and attitudes will come sharply into focus. Britain will learn, from France, that you can defend national interests and be a good European; and that Europe is sometimes the best way to defend national interests.

Maybe. But it may also be that the French elite, used to ignoring their own public when it suits them, underestimates the effect of the Euro-bile pumped into the veins of British public opinion in recent years by a majority of newspapers and a minority of politicians.