At the heart of the squabbling between France and the UK is their differing ideas on which direction the EU should take
The European Union's failure to agree on a new seven-year budget earlier this month was ostensibly about money, with France defending farm subsidies to the death while the UK refused to give up the rebate Margaret Thatcher bullied out of her peers at the height of her power. In reality, the dispute is about two different visions of the European future.
While it would be wrong to suggest this gap cannot be bridged, it does look like the project to strap together a bunch of disparate cultures, economies and ideologies is starting to stumble. It does not help that the personal relationship between two of the key actors is breaking down. When in April 2004 Tony Blair promised a referendum on the European constitution, Jacques Chirac was obliged to follow suit, even though France's 1992 monetary union referendum squeaked through by just 50.1% to 49.9%.
It is not clear why Blair capitulated on the plebiscite. The fact that it was first reported in the Sun newspaper has aroused speculation Blair did a deal with its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch. Maybe Murdoch, no fan of the EU, pledged the backing of his publications for Blair in the May election in return for a ballot in which the UK public was likely to vote against the constitution. The referendum promise certainly allowed Blair to ignore the issue of the UK's role in Europe during the election, even as it left France feeling betrayed. Thus Chirac, rightly or wrongly, lays the blame for the current budget and constitutional crises at the door of 10 Downing Street. Blair, in turn, was visibly angry when he addressed the European Parliament last week. The UK's willingness to renegotiate its annual rebate of e5.2bn contrasts with France's insistence that the current system of spending 40% of the EU's annual budget of e105bn on farm subsidies remain unchanged until 2013.
When Brown talks about "changes Europe must make to meet the competitive challenges of globalisation," the French detect the odious odour of Americanism in his words. And while the UK press bangs on about how Europe needs a dose of Thatcherism to lick its economy into shape, the French do not view socialism as a dirty word.
The UK now has the EU presidency for the next six months. That puts Blair in a strong position; a poll published last month showed only 37% of French people said Chirac can push Europe in the right direction, down from 55% from a year ago. The International Olympic Committee's decision to host the 2012 summer games in London will drive another wedge between the UK and France. Chirac will congratulate Blair through gritted teeth. Blair will mouth platitudes of humility. Both men know their real fight lies elsewhere, and is about nothing less than the future direction of the EU.
By Mark Gilbert, Bloomberg columnist
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