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EU: British, French Leaders Disagree Sharply Over Agricultural, Defense Policies

By Sarah Martin

French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair had a spectacular diplomatic spat last week over Europes Common Agricultural Policy reform. This week, Blair revealed Franco-British incompatibility over the future of a common European defense policy. The public disputes point to a new low in Franco-British relations. Analysts say part of the tension may be a result of a renewed Franco-German friendship and they say the recent arguments may not necessarily be a bad thing for Europe.

Paris, 6 November 2002 (RFE/RL) British Prime Minster Tony Blair has acknowledged the harsh words that he and French President Jacques Chirac exchanged last week over European Union farm subsidies, but he did not apologize for the row. Instead, this week he admitted to another major disagreement between the two. This time, over the creation of a common European defense policy.

Great Britain and France have strong views about what direction the EU's European and Security Defense Policy (ESDP) should take. Blair supports the ESDP being an instrument for improving Europe's military capabilities and acting as a complementary body to NATO.

France, on the other hand, supports the idea of the ESDP becoming a separate body in the future and operating independently of NATO at some point.

Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the Paris-based Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, says France has long held the view that Europe needs an independent defense system.

"For the French, a European defense is, in the long run, an alternative to an American security guarantee over Europe. We are of course very much aware that this is not going to take place tomorrow. But there is a view that if the Americans at some point will leave Europe and that Europeans should become master of their own destiny. Its not against NATO, its independent from NATO."

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Francois Rivasseau wouldnt address the current Blair-Chirac dispute directly. Instead, he cites the importance of the 1998 Saint-Malo declaration, which proposed Europes joint defense be handled through the EU.

"We are very keen to see these decisions in the field of security and defense implemented, but as we say always, 'the devil is in the details.' And if there has been a decision to go forward, when it comes to concrete problems, concrete solutions and concrete arrangements, difficulties can delay or complicate the issues and we are working hard to try and improve the situation."

Franco-British relations appear to have hit a new low with the two leaders arguing about several important European policy decisions, everything from the proposed reform of the Common Agricultural Policy to European security policy.

These disagreements come as relations between France and Germany -- traditionally close but which had cooled in recent years -- are improving.

Blair's first public irritation came at the end of last week when he discovered that France and Germany had made a pre-European Union summit deal that would keep largely intact generous farm subsidies and delay for many years the reform of the CAP that Britain has been seeking.

Blair says the CAP payments reward farmers for overproducing and prevent smaller or developing nations from competing on equal terms. France receives the most subsidies of any country in Europe.

Protecting French farmers is a high priority for Chirac. The EU spends about half of its $90 billion annual budget on agricultural aid. About $30 billion of that is direct handouts to farmers.

Some critics worry that a stronger Franco-German bond could leave little room for the concerns of smaller countries in the rest of Europe.

Yesterday, the finance ministers of both countries made clear their intention to take a step toward cooperation on reform of the EU's stability and growth pact. They called jointly for the pact to take greater account of inflation and unemployment rather than strictly focusing on budget deficits.

This was widely viewed as an effort to deflect criticism from Germany and France's failure to stay within the pact's 3 percent budget deficit criterion.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Rivasseau says, however, that better relations between the two should not be taken as a negative sign for Europe:

"Germany and France on many issues represent opposite views, but when we can reach a consensus on these views, we have a chance to see these views endorsed by the other European countries because logically it represents a point of balance, of fair balance of the views, within the EU and its because of that we speak about the French-German engine. Not because France and Germany want to impose their views. Because we are very opposite, it represents a sort of point of balance and so it is attractive. We hope it should be also attractive for Britain."

Moisi says, in any event, the rift between France and Britain is not as serious as it appears.

"I don't think one can say that French-British relations have reached an all-time low. You have to remember Mrs. Thatcher, you have to remember the time of DeGaulle, so this is one crisis, quite spectacular but deep down less serious than the previous ones France and Great Britain have surmounted. So, to a large extent it is 'much ado about nothing,' if you want to quote Shakespeare."

Rivasseau also denies the severity of the spat between Chirac and Blair. He says it would be just as easy to focus on the issues France and Britain have reached agreement on in recent months.

"Bilaterally, we have a number of issues on which we have done a lot to improve our relationship, like the issue of British beef or the issue of Sangatte. We have also issues which are more difficult, obviously...and this is not new, this is a 12-year old issue, the issue of Iraq. Altogether, its a very rich relationship, which is essential to our foreign policy and which evolves with its moments of great comprehension and it's moments of great discussion, which is normal."

The agreement to close the Sangatte refugee camp near the northern French city of Calais does provide evidence of some significant diplomatic breakthroughs between France and Britain.

On 5 November, French authorities took the first step toward closing the camp by refusing new refugees the right to register at the camp. Sangatte houses approximately 1,500 people, principally from Iraq and Afghanistan. Its proximity to the Eurostar tunnel that connects France to Britain, and the numerous attempts refugees have made to cross over to Britain through the tunnel, has long been a sore spot for Britain, which is concerned about clandestine immigration.