Why are the British the stuff of French nightmares?

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The Independent Online

The doings of "Albion perfide" have become the stuff of French nightmares again. The French senate was told last week that we probably poisoned Napoleon. New evidence apparently shows that the great man died not of stomach cancer, as believed for over 100 years, but from arsenic. And the British governor of the prison island of St Helena is supposed to have finished him off, as he lay dying, with a dose of bitter almonds and a mercury rich compound, calomel.

The doings of "Albion perfide" have become the stuff of French nightmares again. The French senate was told last week that we probably poisoned Napoleon. New evidence apparently shows that the great man died not of stomach cancer, as believed for over 100 years, but from arsenic. And the British governor of the prison island of St Helena is supposed to have finished him off, as he lay dying, with a dose of bitter almonds and a mercury rich compound, calomel.

Turning to the "actualite", the French believe they espy an equally effective British plot in Brussels. Le Monde has been the most vocal proponent. They put it in the form of a paradox. Just when the British public's hostility to further European integration is becoming ever more marked, British influence within the European Union is increasing sharply. The French speak of "le king Tony", of his attempted takeover of Europe and of his methods - the so-called "l'entryisme britannique a Bruxelles".

The thesis is that the UK is swiftly taking advantage of the break-down in the post-war alliance between France and Germany. According to Le Monde, the Franco-German relationship needs to be "re-invented".

President Chirac has not been able to create an effective partnership with Chancellor Kohl's successor, Gerhard Schroder. At the same time, the collapse of the Euro strains the relationship between the two architects of monetary union. Every day the financial markets say to them - "we don't want this thing you have invented". And the German public, which has been brought up on a strong currency, begins to feel uneasy.

As the two Continental powers have run out of ideas, we rush in to fill the gap. What are these ideas? In an interview sympathetic to Tony Blair, Jacques Delors said (and I paraphrase): The British are always in favour of extending the European Union to all of Europe. This is not a recent idea. They have always wanted a Europe in which goods, services and capital circulate freely. They are fundamentally in favour of just a vast free trade area. They see no need to go further. It is their historic position.

Here I think foreign observers understand us better than we do ourselves. They see an unchanging attitude irrespective of which political party is in power. I am sure they wouldn't expect - rightly - a Hague administration to make any real difference to the verities of the British position. In practice, successive British governments do want nothing more than a free trade area with only such supra-national institutions as are required to ensure its smooth functioning.

To a European majority which wants integration rather than to deepen the union as well as enlargement, we make concessions only when we must, generally of a minor nature except in agriculture. Margaret Thatcher did so, so has Mr Blair, and so would Mr Hague. In a long perspective, British policy towards Europe looks consistent and remarkably successful. We have more or less got what we wanted, and the price hasn't been too high. Now we are seeking to improve what we have won - and defend it.

This is how we go about it - according to the French: "The British civil servants working in the Commission have a solid training, are very patient and work hard. The striking thing about them is their team spirit. Organisation is almost military."

Undoubtedly we have recently had major successes. The Lisbon summit in March devoted itself almost exclusively to British plans to improve the efficiency of the European market. By the end of next year, for instance, Europe is committed to having fully liberalised telecoms markets. A date has been set for the creation of a single market for financial services - 2005. A second success is reform of the European Commission itself, of which Mr Kinnock has taken charge.

As to whether Britain joins the euro, the exasperating aspect of the problem is that it lies on the edge of our historic concerns. In so far as a common currency would assist the working of a single market, we are in favour. But in so far as the management of a common currency necessitates a loss of sovereignty, we are very reluctant.

So in facing this problem, we employ one of the virtues the French attribute to us - patience, endless patience, always looking favourably on the prospect, never actually taking the necessary steps to join, waiting for events to suggest a solution.

Without knowing it, probably, the Prime Minister is being typically British - and exasperating pretty well everyone in the process - the euro-sceptics, the euro-enthusiasts, British industry, the City, our Continental partners, the lot. Such a policy may be perfidious. It is almost certainly the correct approach.

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