Leading Article: The tunnel links us, la difference remains

Click to follow
The Independent Online
RELATIONS between Britain and France since the Second World War have never quite clicked. Hence, perhaps, Francois Mitterrand's lament, in his interview on page 13, that the Channel tunnel is about the only thing the two countries have done together during his presidency.

He is not entirely right. Practical co-operation flourishes between the two countries, notably in defence matters, where there are more joint projects than between Britain and the United States. But pragmatism still guides Franco-British relations, whereas the emotion beneath Franco-German relations can surmount even deep divergences of interest. The joint Franco-German brigade, little more than a symbol, highlights the triumph of politics over pragmatism.

By most measures, Franco-British relations should be closer. The two countries are of similar size and share many interests. Both have nuclear weapons. Both are warrior nations, readier than other Europeans to commit their armed forces abroad - in the Gulf, Bosnia and elsewhere. Both worry about the power of the united Germany. Both have an emotional commitment to national sovereignty, even if the French remain more open to European integration.

So why are relations not warmer? The gulf between Latin and Anglo- American traditions in free trade and deregulation is only part of the reason. France's bond with Germany was forged after a war in which both countries suffered defeat and occupation. The desire for reconciliation came together with political and economic interests in European integration. Britain then lost its chance to become a founder member.

Probably, too, the French experience of Nazi occupation, with which many of their citizens collaborated, made them less self-righteous than the British, whose war was morally much simpler. French attitudes to Germany, although bitter, were more realistic.

No transformation of cross-channel relations seems imminent, despite the psychological effects of the tunnel, so President Mitterrand's lament may well be carried on by his successor. France, having lost its battle to slow down the enlargement of the EU, now hopes to remain on the fast track of a multi- speed Europe. British policy is still represented by the slower speed of its cross-Channel trains.