Why the French will do a Thatcher

Observations on Europe

Europe used to be a comfortable place for France. From the 1950s, the European Community was constructed along French lines: French was the lingua franca in Brussels, the Commission bureaucracy was modelled on the French civil service, and France could run Europe in partnership with a compliant Germany. Paris came up with the ideas, Bonn paid the bills. The single currency, the Schengen area of passport-free travel, the common foreign and security policy - all began with Franco-German deals.

It's different now. Germany is run by a new generation of leaders who don't feel they owe France anything, and who don't want to keep subsidising French farmers.

So France is starting to behave like Britain under the Tories. The Parisian political elite are against reforming agricultural policy, wary of enlargement and cautious about liberalisation. The government increasingly resorts to blocking tactics. "The French are losing their subtlety," said a British diplomat after the Seville summit in June, when President Jacques Chirac obstructed progress on migration policy. "They used to be good at alliances, but now it's obstinacy." Tony Blair's success in increasing British influence explains Chirac's "You've been very rude!" outburst at the Brussels summit in October. Chirac was provoked because Blair had taken the shine off his deal with the German chancellor on agriculture by insisting that at least some reform would go ahead regardless. The deal had been welcomed in France as the revival of the Franco-German alliance. But it won't last long.

Diplomats are now shuttling between Paris and Berlin in search of a grand new initiative to announce at the 40th anniversary of their bilateral Elysee treaty in January. But they can't find anything to agree on. The Germans offered a "European Security and Defence Union", but the French don't like the word "union" and the Germans can't stump up the money. The anniversary will probably end up with an announcement of more school exchanges and co-operation between defence companies - hardly in the big league of European co-operation.

Nor can the two agree on the big issues about the EU's future. France wants a president of Europe; Germany thinks it a dangerous idea. Germany wants more power for the Commission in foreign policy, while most of the French establishment (with the exception of the EU trade commissioner, Pascal Lamy) is against this.

Once the EU enlarges in 2004, France's position in Europe will be permanently diminished. Germany will have new partners in the east, where France has few friends, largely because of the hostility of its public to enlargement and the high-handedness of its politicians. France is the only EU country where more people oppose than favour the accession of the post-communist countries. At the Nice summit in December 2000, Chirac tried to do them out of the European Parliament and Council seats to which the size of their populations entitled them, arguing that there should be a premium for older EU members. "Chirac seems to think we could have joined in 1956 if we'd wanted to," said a Hungarian diplomat.

After enlargement, it will get worse for France. The new members will want French farmers' subsidies diverted to the really poor parts of Europe.

But the EU cannot work round an obstructive France as it did with Britain. The French won't be satisfied with opt-outs, as the British were over the euro; they want to stay in the driving seat. They will block progress rather than let the other countries proceed without them. Expect France to become the new awkward partner, and expect it to produce gridlock in the EU far more effectively than Margaret Thatcher ever did.

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