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1 November 2004

Blair ruins the French dream

With Britain at its heart, the EU isn't what it once was - and now France is just as vitriolic about

By David Lawday

Tony Blair doesn’t seem to have done much on Europe, except go backwards on the euro. Yet appearances are deceptive. Something big has happened – to France, a country that cares about Europe. Grievous harm has befallen her passion for European integration. And isn’t that Blair carrying the offensive weapon?

France, the mother of the European Union, now seems wracked with doubt and despair over her creation, largely thanks to Britain. The kid just hasn’t turned out the way she wanted; it has turned out the way Britain wanted. Behind a declared preference for a “Europe of nation states”, France has always wanted political integration to go far enough to permit a single European state, of sorts. That is the quasi-federal vision that France lives with.

France has fostered an aspiring outlook on Europe, long supported by a sense of political primacy, resulting from close partnership with Germany. However, sufficient British resistance to that agreeable vision has of late worked its way into the European process to make France despair of ever achieving it.

Like Britain, France will be holding a referendum on the proposed EU constitution. A bout of stress over both this plebiscite and the separate prospect of Turkey joining the EU has now so diminished French aspirations for Europe that the old passion looks altogether spent. Enter Blair. For a root cause of Gallic anguish is Britain. While Blair will have his own tough struggle to win a UK referendum, what haunts France on both the constitution and Turkey is that Britain has apparently prevailed in making the EU an ever-expanding zone of liberal mercantilism that obstructs political union.

An initial heart tremor was diagnosable in early autumn, when Laurent Fabius, a Socialist Party heavyweight and former prime minister, astonished France by bidding that the opposition left vote No to the EU constitution in the referendum next year. At first, the Fabius initiative seemed to be a suicidal personal gamble. Couldn’t he have dreamed up a less drastic way to set himself apart from the dull Francois Hollande, the current Socialist leader, and thus take the left’s nomination for the next presidential election? But it soon became apparent that the Fabius move portended something graver: a crisis of belief in Europe.

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The chief argument Fabius advances for rejecting the EU constitution is that it institutionalises Blair’s liberal, free-market economic programme, in disregard of social welfare and jobs lost to cheaper, low-wage neighbours. The French now talk of the “English Europe” with the same disdain as Michael Howard’s Conservatives talk of “Brussels”. Fabius baldly asserts: “The British concept has won.” And he does not see why it should be allowed to stand. His “no” gamble may yet prove suicidal, but it has opened up deep cracks in what once passed for a national consensus, challenged only by a glum handful of sovereignty diehards and the extreme right.

There was a time when the French left was almost as averse to Europe as the British right has been since Margaret Thatcher. But the late president Francois Mitterrand, a Socialist, fixed that in 1984 by holding hands with Germany’s Helmut Kohl near Verdun. Since then the French political nation, the mainstream left and right, has been at one on Europe. Hence the shock over the divisive play by Fabius, a Mitterrand protege to boot.

Public confusion between the plebiscite on the constitution and a separate referendum on Turkey only serves as a boost for the No camp. Opinion has hardened against Turkish entry to the EU. The French National Assembly would have killed Turkey’s hopes once and for all, if President Jacques Chirac had not barred an October parliamentary vote designed to force his hand. Chirac, himself a Turkey backer, prevented a vote at the close of an assembly debate, so that he would not have to attend a 17 December EU summit on Turkish entry with a decision already having been made for him.

The prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, supposedly Chirac’s political valet, pronounces Turkey “very far” from Europe in all respects. Another minister claims, anonymously, that a “crushing majority” of the Chirac cabinet is against Turkish entry. Taking Europe to the frontiers of Syria, Iraq and Iran just does not fit the French vision. The present thrust of parliamentary will is to limit Turkey’s eventual part in the EU to “privileged partnership”, a modest goody extendable to other Muslim Medi-terranean friends such as Egypt and Morocco.

To see Blair parading as a chief sponsor of Turkish membership merely deepens the distress that France feels over its diminishing influence – a distress born of a sense of loss of control. The EU’s ten-member enlargement to the east was only the beginning. Since then, France’s EU Commissioner has been passed over for major responsibilities in Brussels and been allotted transport, which is so far down the low road of French expectations as to be considered a fatal accident – especially as Blair’s Brussels novice, Peter Mandelson, has landed the fancier job of trade.

It may sound odd that political debate over Turkey is just as fretful in France as it is in Germany, which has a large Turkish minority population to consider. Yet the debate in Paris is less about Turkey’s merits and demerits than about France itself and its place in Europe. Which is why the argument about building a bridge to Islam through Turkish membership and resolving a clash of civilisations won’t wash. Feel-good reasoning of this kind, strongly encouraged by the United States, is seen as heading one way only – to dilution of the EU to a point where political integration is not merely impossible, but not worth pursuing.

It would be a catastrophe for Europe if its mother were to reject the constitution. The odds still are that it will not. Inbred pro-European tradition will perhaps manage to reassert itself – just. Moreover, the social model that Fabius holds up against “English Europe” is no glowing self-advertisement, given that it equates with 10 per cent unemployment.

Some holding compromise to prevent the EU from blackballing Turkey outright at France’s insistence may also be found, such as an offer to open negotiations that lead either to full EU membership or a special partnership. The final outcome could be left undecided until after negotiations reach some kind of conclusion, in ten years or so.

That near-infinite postponement ploy would no doubt satisfy French opponents of Turkey, but it will not revive their old love for Europe. With the French so put out by “English Europe”, it makes you wonder why Michael Howard does not sense that he is on to a good thing, and sign up with Blair to say Yes in the British referendum.

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