Leading Article: Plausible partners step on to the floor

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The Independent Online
WITH THE Elysee Palace occupied by a conservative prime minister who buys his suits in Savile Row, it is no surprise that relations between London and Paris should be blooming. What is more surprising is that the two countries should agree on the future of the European Community, the issue that used to divide them most. John Major is today likely to welcome Edouard Balladur's proposal for a European security pact to prevent further ethnic conflicts such as those of the former Yugoslavia.

Mr Balladur is surely right in wanting to force east and central European states to deal with their inter-ethnic and cross- border conflicts before the EC takes seriously their applications for membership or close association. The Hungarians and the Slovaks cannot agree on the fate of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia. There could be problems with the Ruthenian minority in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and with the Romany people. Poles constitute the fifth- largest, and unhappiest, ethnic group in Ukraine. In the new republic of Belarus, tensions abound between Polish and Belarussian Catholics. In Lithuania, there is mutual suspicion between Polish farmers who have been there for centuries and the Lithuanian population. Other east European countries with aspirations to join the EC have worse difficulties still.

A year ago, Britain might have sneered at the French plan and complained of a Gallic plot to prevent a further widening of the Community by excluding the new democracies to the east. That the reaction has been otherwise is a sign of how closely the two countries are now working together, be it over the Balkans war or the shaping of the post- Maastricht Community. For 30 years Britain looked jealously from the sidelines while Germany and France waltzed around the dance floor. As France and Britain's interests increasingly coincide, however, they have come to seem a more plausible couple.

Mauled by the electorate in the Maastricht referendum, Paris sees virtue in Britain's vision of a decentralised European Community, rather than a superstate run by unelected bureaucrats. It is also interested in subsidiarity, the principle by which laws should be made as close as possible to the citizen. Both governments are now plotting a hit list of Commission proposals that they want to see buried for good.

Mr Balladur's wish to erect trade barriers against the rest of the world as a way of reducing European unemployment is, however, more suspect. France believes that south-east Asian countries are using child labour and other evils to undercut Community industries, and argues that the EC must protect itself from goods produced there. Increasingly hostile to Gatt agreements, it wants to collect duties on Asian and other imports, and to give them the money back so they can spend it on their welfare states.

Britain is justifiably sceptical of this bizarre idea. But as he sits through today's summit in Copenhagen, Mr Major would be wise to reflect that if the new friendship cannot survive a single tiff, it is not worth preserving anyway.