The special relationship that will survive all tiffs

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WHEN YOU plan to raise the building by another storey, your first worry is about foundations. Where do they lie, and what are they made of? European union - the Maastricht project - depends not just on the right design for the penthouse but on understanding what the Community rests on below ground. And the British, voluble about office space on the 10th floor, have never been much good on foundations.

It is just over 30 years since Adenauer and de Gaulle signed the Elysee Treaty, the 'Treaty for Franco-

German Reconciliation and Friendship'. France and Germany celebrated the anniversary last month. Britain scarcely noticed it. And yet this treaty still determines how the European Community will grow; which parts of the structure will take more stress and which will buckle.

The Elysee Treaty is not a Community document. But it recognised a truth: that reconciliation between the French and the Germans, between societies as well as states, was the condition for any European unity which meant anything. That had always been known, of course. The first idea which came staggering out of the ruins in 1945 was that France and Germany must never fight one another again. But the 1963 treaty made that idea flesh. It is because of the Elysee Treaty that European politics still revolve round the axis of a 'special relationship' between those two nations. Compared to it, Britain's lingering fancy of a special relationship with the United States is little more than a cobweb.

The Elysee Treaty is the greatest triumph of French statecraft in this century. What the treaty did was to lock both countries into a large, demanding programme of intimacy. For 30 years, the heads of state have been meeting twice a year to discuss foreign policy, European Community development, defence, education and 'youth'. The last point was no empty piety. By the end of 1991, the Franco-German Youth Agency had taken 4.5 million young visitors from France to Germany or vice versa. Foreign and defence ministers meet every three months. Departmental heads in the two foreign ministries consult every month. There is an annual conference of ambassadors. And talk leads to action. The Kohl- Mitterrand summit in May last year, for example, produced the decision to set up the joint 'Euro-Corps' of French and German troops, to serve European security, and the scheme for the new high-speed Paris-Berlin and Paris-Munich rail links.

In other words, France and Germany are running a partnership of their own which is at least as intensive as the Community itself and - in good times - much more efficient. But this is something which the British apparently prefer not to know about. Those in these islands who do understand the power of that relationship have two kinds of feeling about it. One is resentful: Britain is excluded. The other is simply incredulous. Why on earth do the Germans put up with the French - with their national egoism, their unpredictability about observing agreements, their arrogance of style? Surely here, across the Channel, is a less awkward partner whose pragmatism should be more reassuring to the German mind.

This misses the emotional magic of what happened in 1963. It might, in theory, have been Harold Macmillan who had toured West Germany the year before and said to a youth rally: 'I congratulate you for being young Germans, in other words the children of a great people. Yes] a great people . . .' In fact it is a British tragedy that it was not Harold Macmillan. At a time when de Gaulle was using the French veto to keep Britain out of the Common Market, it would have made every kind of sense to play the German card.

But it had to be de Gaulle. Nobody else could have talked like that about Germany in 1963. Nobody else would have dared to balance Germany's 'great crimes and great miseries' against that Germany which had 'enriched the universe with the countless products of its ingenuity, technology and labour, and had deployed in the arts of peace and the torment of war its treasures of courage, discipline and organisation'.

It was not just the gilded rhetoric which was typical of de Gaulle. It was his cold, shameless selection of exactly the right epithets to soothe the wounds in German self-esteem. And they worked. His tumultuous progress through West Germany in 1962 became more than a Franco-German reconciliation. It became one of those pilgrimages, like that of Pope John Paul II on his first return to Poland in 1979, which seem to wake a whole people out of a diseased trance into self-awareness. They were no longer the 'ugly Germans'. For the first time since 1945, a world statesman had found in Germany something to admire and to respect.

Like the tank general he was, de Gaulle knew how to turn success into irreversible breakthrough. Out of the 1962 tour came the 1963 treaty, which he and Konrad Adenauer signed in Paris. In later years many other European states, including Britain, would flatter Germany more or less insincerely. But France had been first to take the Germans by the hand and lead them back into world respect. The treaty, like a marriage after a sudden seduction, built that firstness into a permanent institution.

This is why this relationship has survived the quarrels which soon followed the treaty - almost all of them started by France. De Gaulle attacked West Germany's military dependence on the United States, threw Nato out of France, encouraged German politicians conspiring against Chancellor Erhard, blackmailed the Germans over the Common Agricultural Policy, rebuked Bonn for failing to criticise the Americans' war in Vietnam and told the Poles that German claims to their western territories were empty. On most of those points, British foreign policy had diverged from France and been substantially closer to West German attitudes. And yet the fundamental grip of the treaty on the German imagination was unshaken.

Admittedly, Franco-German friendship can sometimes look like a one-way street. Finding young Germans eager to visit France has always been easier than persuading French schoolchildren that Germany is interesting. But at the political level the special relationship is safe. If there is ever a two-speed Europe, leaving the British and other doubters to find their own way to economic and political union, then France and Germany will be in the fast lane.

De Gaulle left his country two legacies intended to maintain French influence in the post-colonial world. One was the force de frappe, the independent nuclear deterrent, now a rusting irrelevance. The other was Franco- German friendship as a solid programme of actions, not an empty repetition of words.

And the Elysee legacy is still accumulating. Talking the other day to German Social Democrats, I was struck yet again by how the relationship with France is still central to them. They would like, one day, to extend the relationship by building Poland - their other grand reconciliation - into a symmetrical partnership on Germany's other flank.

But Britain? Affection, yes, but where was any vision of what Germany and Britain could do together? Listening to our own introverted squabbles about Maastricht and national sovereignty, I heard no answer.