Friday, March 21, 2003
Consequences of the Franco-British rift - 21st March 2003, 23.12

On the lookout for any indications that the war may have solidified the rift between Britain and the anti-war powers in Europe, it was reported tonight that France, Germany and Belgium were proposing further integration of their defence forces. At this point one must differentiate between diplomatic expressions of exasperation from British ministers and their restatement of the long-term goal of European integration. On the defence initiative:

The rift in the EU appeared to have one immediate consequence with the tripartite defense initiative apparently designed to isolate Britain, Europe's preeminent military power. Although German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder insisted no country would be excluded from a common defense policy, Belgian officials said only three were invited to the initial summit. Schroeder said the initiative would boost European defense industries and could one day lead to common EU armed forces.

This led to a robust and contemptuous rebuff from HMG:

Britain's Europe Minister Denis Macshane derided the plan: "I wonder how serious is the idea of basing European defense on Belgium without Britain. European defense is a matter of two countries that have military capacities: France and Britain."

However, at the summit, Blair was also quick to reaffirm his European credentials:

Blair denied any suggestion that divisions over the Iraq crisis had dimmed his enthusiasm for the EU. "The answer to that is unhesitatingly no. I am not less enthusiastic. Where there are the disagreements, the right way to handle them is not turn our back on our other partners but to engage with them," he said.

This new initiative could be welcomed as the first possible indication of a two-speed Europe with certain countries prepared to countenance greater integration if the Convention proves a step too far. It also demonstrates that the Franco-British defence co-operation agreed at St Malo in 1998 has probably been scaled back or abandoned. Whilst these developments are positive for the goal of delaying or reversing British integration with Europe, they also spell out the possible rise of a dangerous rival on the Continent.

France has continued with its strategy of denying the Allies any legitimation of their activity through the United Nations. France is prepared to veto any UN resolution that supports US/UK actions and has stated that they should not have a role in the administration of a post-war Iraq. Chirac has proposed a Middle East peace summit to increase his support amongst the Arab countries and displace the British from their role in fostering this goal.

The ominous sign of a realignment in European diplomacy is the close co-operation between France, Russia and Germany. Many argued that Putin was merely holding out for concessions and that Russia would support the war in exchange for economic access to post-war Iraq and repayment of debts. The same argument was also made about France before they came to be seen as 'unreasonable'. All three countries share a common interest in forging a de facto alliance that allows them to provide alternative diplomatic leadership to the United States, a temporary European counterweight that may be given concrete form at a later date. Such an arrangement would probably dominate the continent in the medium term and marginalise Britain (also not a bad thing). It certainly explains why these three countries maintain their opposition even though they know it will have no effect. It is very bad news for the Eastern European states and marks another step in the decline of Russia from a super power to a middling state that is now allying itself to the other continental nuclear power in Europe, France.


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