These two fractious leaders should focus on what unites them, not on their divisions

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The Independent Online

Behind the parlour entertainments at Windsor tonight, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac have important work to do building bridges. The Channel, after all, has never seemed wider than in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. It was only 20 months ago that British ministers were queuing up to denounce "the French", prompting a public protest from the French ambassador. Though neither will want to rehearse old arguments, Iraq remains significant because it underpins the two leaders' very different visions of world affairs, which are not easily reconciled.

Behind the parlour entertainments at Windsor tonight, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac have important work to do building bridges. The Channel, after all, has never seemed wider than in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. It was only 20 months ago that British ministers were queuing up to denounce "the French", prompting a public protest from the French ambassador. Though neither will want to rehearse old arguments, Iraq remains significant because it underpins the two leaders' very different visions of world affairs, which are not easily reconciled.

Curiously, while the two nations' leaders have been bickering, relations between their citizens have become ever closer. A generation of ambitious young French people has taken advantage of Britain's buoyant labour market, while a growing tribe of older Britons chooses to spend its retirement in Provence and the Dordogne. Some elements of the jingoistic press may believe that invoking the spirit of Harfleur remains popular, but it jars with most people's experiences.

Although the shadow of Iraq will continue to loom over the two leaders, there are areas where the two governments are increasing their co-operation. On climate change, third-world development and the International Criminal Court, there is close agreement. Above all, both Mr Blair and M. Chirac are personally committed to helping Africa; the issue rightly weighs heavily on the conscience of the two ex-colonial powers.

Less than 20 miles from the EU borders, many Africans face problems of suffering and survival that dwarf the difficulties facing Europeans. Britain has taken the lead in drawing the tragedy of Darfur to world attention, although it is still only the Bush administration that has used the "genocide" word. Meanwhile, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where more than three million people have died in a conflict that has drawn in seven countries, the French are leading international operations in the east.

The British Army showed in Sierra Leone that a killing field can be averted with only a small number of well-trained troops quickly deployed. By contrast, France's five thousand troops in Ivory Coast, there to uphold a truce between the government and rebels, have lost the trust of both. The French, dare we suggest, could draw useful lessons from Britain's conduct in Sierra Leone if they are not to get bogged down in a protracted conflict. Given the nature of the retooled Bush administration, only Europe is likely to take on peace-keeping missions in fly-blown states that don't have oil wells or vital strategic interests. And it is only Britain and France that have the hardware and troops to carry out viable actions. Now is the time for the two former colonial powers to stop concentrating efforts on areas traditionally seen as in their sphere of influence and to start acting in unison.

An EU force is now active in Kosovo, but it is far from the "rapid-reaction" force originally promised. Both leaders should emerge tonight with a clear timetable for when it will be operational. Equally, much can be achieved through diplomacy. Robin Cook and his French opposite number hatched plans for "embassy-sharing" in Africa in the late 1990s - with British diplomats seconded to Francophone countries and vice versa. The plan fell victim to bureaucratic inertia and strategic rivalry; it should be revived by the two countries taking the lead in debt relief.

Even on the Common Agricultural Policy, the cause of so much misery in developing countries, there could be movement. Though M. Chirac remains a staunch defender of the protectionist policies that price African farmers out of the market, he has shown he might be willing to cut back on aid to European sugar farmers - the most damaging subsidy of all.

Now is the time for political leaders to catch up with the peoples of the two countries. What better project to develop Anglo-French relations than a credible plan for joint action on Africa?

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