The EU as we know it began with the aim to bind France and Germany together and that Franco-German motor has driven European integration through to the present day. That relationship has gone from strength to strength; it has been the one constant theme in European politics at a time of drastic and unpredictable change.
This is particularly true of France. Her first two decades were characterised by a troubled and short-lived Fourth Republic that was divided and then collapsed under the pressure of Algerian War. Yet no matter who occupied the Elysée, the special relationship remained. Konrad Adenauer was the only politician ever to be invited to (that grand old nationalist) Charles de Gaulle’s private home in Colombey-les-deux-églises. Similarly, the sight of the first Socialist president, François Mitterrand, holding hands with Helmut Kohl as they visited a war memorial remains an important memory for reconciliation. Even today, despite the relationship becoming less equal as the French economy looks weaker and weaker while the German economy powers ahead, we observed a relationship so close we started to call the two leaders Merkozy.
I say ‘we observed’ because that has been the closest we have come to a coherent position. Britain’s attitude to Europe, in contrast to the French and Germans, has waxed and waned vivaciously. The coming and going of British governments chopped and changed between taking little interest in the continent, half-hearted attempts to join, half-hearted attempts to leave, trying to dismantle the whole project and then trying to lead the way. The Conservatives wanted in, Labour wanted out; the Conservatives wanted out, then Labour wanted in. Margaret Thatcher took a great step towards the EU by signing the Single European Act, then recoiled in horror at the ‘Socialist monster’ she had helped to create. Tony Blair began his time in office building bridges with other Europeans, but he ended it as pro-American in the Bush years as Thatcher was in the Reagan years.
I do not easily recall any ‘friendship moments’ between Britain and France, nor Britain and Germany. Blair and Schroeder got on well as they launched the Third Way, but the moments of animosity (Macmillan vs de Gaulle, Thatcher vs Mitterrand) far more memorable.
This is why it is so difficult for us to credibly claim a leadership role in Europe. There is a sense of entitlement without having put in the work. Our off-moments have meant that the EU as it is, with its roots in the Treaty of Rome, is far more ‘continental’ than it would have been had we engaged at the beginning and remained committed ever since.
However, Britain’s role is a pivotal one, not a leadership one, for we cannot lead from the fringes. The Benelux countries argued as strongly for our membership of the Common Market as we did because they were frightened of being steamrolled by France.
Putting the odd diplomatic tiff aside, Britain has worked remarkably well with France over the last few years. An adventurous France has become bored with stay-at-home Germany and now chooses to cooperate with us. We launched a joint operation in Libya, together; we now share an aircraft carrier between us, and cooperate specially in almost every sphere.
Meanwhile, Britain and German businesses work well together through a shared though varied country. I am currently unable to source this due to no internet access, but I believe British Influence or the European Movement states that the UK does more business with the northern Lander (region) of Germany than it does with the BRICs combined. Working in the translation industry, I can testify there is so much work between the two languages as German businesses try to break through to international markets. Yet, Germany is growing impatient at having to lead the crisis and would be grateful of an ally from the ‘productive north’.
Ultimately, Britain cannot expect to play a leadership role in the EU from its peripheral position. There could be a new Anglo-French axis or an Anglo-German one in Brussels, but not until we have shown that we reserve it. Britain does have like-minded allies who are keen to drive through reform in the EU. It does enjoy good relations in Paris and Berlin. It is not alone in its desire to build a more efficient and effective EU. But our friends cannot help Britain solves its own existential problems.
This piece was written for British Influence.