New Leaders, New Perspectives: London Boost for the Entente Cordiale

It seems so different from the old days, when the Franco–German alliance was the central core of European integration. With new leaders come new perspectives. President Sarkozy used his March visit to London to woo the British, with a speech to the British Parliament where he paid unheard-of tributes to Britain’s qualities and set out a detailed agenda for Anglo-French co-operation.

The elegance of Mme Carla Sarkozy gave extra media colour to what was a highly successful state visit. If he wooed, she certainly wowed. The Entente Cordiale, signed in 1904 between Britain and France, has a new lease of life.

The President’s message was, to coin a phrase once much loved of some British politicians, that the UK should be at the heart of Europe, even implying that an Anglo-French partnership could be the new driver for the EU. One practical initiative is that ministers from the two countries will meet on a quarterly basis – presumably matching the bilateral sessions between Paris and Berlin. Thirteen French ministers accompanied the President to London.

Almost everything in the President’s agenda involved bilateral initiatives, but mostly set in an EU context. On the other hand there was little rhetoric from Gordon Brown which indicated any new enthusiasm for Europe.

Still, it’s a reflection of how EU priorities are changing, that even the most sceptical journalists were hard put to identify subjects of disagreement. Not even the common agricultural policy was much of a bone of contention (after all, we must learn to love the CAP in the face of soaring world prices!). Whether or not to boycott the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony seems about the only discordant item. No indication that energy liberalisation was discussed.

Especially interesting would be to know what was said behind the scenes about defence. Sarkozy has already indicated that France may wish to rejoin the integrated command structure of NATO, abandoned by De Gaulle in 1966, and will provide additional forces for Afghanistan, but nothing was said publicly about strengthening the European Security and Defence Policy and France’s wish for a stronger ESDP planning capability.

A stronger European identity in NATO may be France’s price for rejoining the alliance. This remains highly contentious for the US and probably for the British too.

On the other hand there was agreement on an Anglo-French maintenance contract for the A400M transport aircraft when this comes into service, leaving the Germans to their own devices, and reinforced arrangements for joint procurement and for pooling of helicopters, aircraft carriers and maritime aircraft in joint missions under EU or NATO auspices.

Certainly Sarkozy feels temperamentally closer to the UK than to Germany. There is no evidence of a close personal rapport with Angela Merkel of the sort which he seems to have with Gordon Brown and there have been specific problems, notably over vehicle emissions, over the independence of the ECB and over his idea for a Mediterranean Union (resolved in advance of the March EU summit – see Annex 1). Nor is Germany a natural partner on defence issues as Berlin faces politically painful challenges in putting German troops into combat zones.

In the end, though, the demands of realpolitik will determine alliances. The Franco-German understanding in not dead.

Talking of which, I note that Angela Merkel said that her CDU party agreed with Sarkozy’s UMP that Turkey should have a privileged partnership rather than full EU membership. This promises interesting enlargement negotiations when France takes over the EU presidency in July and certainly marks a fundamental difference with British policy. Another issue which failed to feature in the public pronouncements in London!

France and the UK both have relatively new leaders who could change Europe, but so do others. In Cyprus, for instance, there are signs of movement following the election of President Christofias, including demolishing barriers in Nicosia’s main shopping street. A symbol of hope, even though there’s a long way to go to unification.

I see that the new Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk is threatening a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty unless President Kaczynski’s party supports ratification in Parliament. The party withdrew its support, demanding the same opt-out from the Charter of Fundamental Rights as secured by the UK.

It seems that June 12 has been set as the date for the Lisbon referendum in Ireland, the only country to hold such a vote (unless Tusk has to make good his threat). The Irish vote will not be a walkover Sinn Fein will campaign for a no vote; Jean-Marie Le Pen has announced that he will also participate. It promises a fascinating contest where turnout will be crucial. A no vote would of course block ratification of the Treaty: back to the drawing board.