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 "English Europe" as the Tories Are about Brussels

By Lawday, David | New Statesman (1996), November 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

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 "English Europe" as the Tories Are about Brussels


Lawday, David, New Statesman (1996)


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.

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.

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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 "English Europe" as the Tories Are about Brussels
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