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U.K.: British, French Ties Improving, But Hardly A New 'Entente Cordiale'

Yesterday's talks between French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London led to some outward improvement in their strained ties. Discussions included European defense, Iraq, the Middle East, and economic issues. Blair declared the talks "productive," but there were few signs of a genuine rapprochement.

London, 25 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For the first time since deeply disagreeing over the Iraq war, French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair held a mini-summit on 24 November in London.

In spite of an apparent effort by both sides to improve relations -- including an invitation by Chirac for Britain's Queen Elizabeth II to visit France next year -- differences between the two were noticeable.

Ian Begg, a visiting professor at the European Institute of the London School of Economics, says the mini-summit marks the beginning of a possible thaw between the two countries, but that the issues of Iraq and trans-Atlantic ties are still divisive.

"Iraq and trans-Atlantic relations are where the major obstacles to a complete renewal of the love affair really start, because it remains the case that on the positions on Iraq and on the link with the U.S., they are at odds with one another, and that, I think, is also going to feed into the positions on the EU constitution. So these two are still unresolved divisions, even if they are trying hard to paper over the difficulties. That's why I say it is a beginning of a thaw after the great freeze of the last nine months," Begg said.

Britain, along with the United States, led a coalition that deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. France, on the other hand, headed international opposition to the war.

Begg says the two are using issues where they appear to have closer agreement as a starting point for building better ties. One of these issues is a proposal to build a common European defense force. The proposal arose out of a British-French initiative some years ago.

"That's one of the things that is being used to try to agree a common position. It is something that was initiated by the Brits and the French five years ago, so it's one which they already really see eye to eye on; now they are trying to turn it into something more substantial," Begg said.

The proposal has been criticized by the U.S., among others, for potentially diminishing the role of NATO. Blair in recent weeks has gone out of his way to emphasize that any European force would complement -- not replace -- NATO. He repeated that again yesterday.

Chirac, for his part, agreed that the EU sees NATO as a crucial component of European defense: "Our concept of European defense is a concept which does not in any way contradict NATO, and I would like to make that clear -- neither the Germans nor the French wish to undertake any sort of initiative that would contradict NATO, which as the prime minister [Tony Blair] just said, is the heart of our defense system."

Yet subtle differences persist. Both leaders appeared to avoid the issue of whether the EU defense force would have its own headquarters. France and Germany want the EU force to have a military center independent of NATO. This is opposed by the U.S. and Britain.

Dr. Jim Shields, a lecturer in international politics at Warwick University in the U.K., said he thinks the mini-summit was largely what he calls a "superficial exercise" to project an image of closer ties:

"It's a largely superficial exercise in projecting an image of a closer collaboration. I would be interested to see what exactly is going on behind the scene in terms of substantial agreement. It's my impression that not much has emerged to make me think that France and Britain have taken a step forward together," Shields said.

Whatever was achieved in forging unity in yesterday's talks could be endangered in the weeks ahead as the EU tries to put the finishing touches on an EU constitution. The constitution -- the EU's first -- is widely believed to be necessary for when the bloc expands next year to take in 10 new members.

Blair and Chirac yesterday underscored their determination to work together to make a success of the new constitution.

But just after the mini-summit was ending, British newspapers were reporting -- based on an unnamed official in the Foreign Office -- that Britain could wind up vetoing the constitution. The reports said a veto could come if Britain felt the constitution infringed on the country's defense, foreign, and tax policies.

Any veto would certainly dampen plans next year to mark the centenary of the 1904 "Entente Cordiale" -- or form any new alliance. In the entente, France and Britain put aside their disagreements to forge a common front against Germany.

It might also cast a shadow over the queen's visit to France. The queen would take part in the 60th anniversary celebrations of "D-Day," the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France on 6 June 1944.