Dear Prime Minister,
Congratulations on having made it to 10 Downing Street. As you prepare to meet Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday, many in France and Europe are as admiring of your achievement as they are worried about its consequences for the future of Europe. They still remember your decision to pull the Conservative party out of the EPP grouping in the European parliament in favour of some strange rightwing bedfellows. They heard you say you wanted to repatriate powers from Brussels to London, especially in social and home affairs. They see that the Liberal Democrats have softened their traditional pro-European position by agreeing to be part of your government. In short, many are concerned that Britain is back to playing its historic role: one foot in, one foot out; divide and rule among the Europeans; prevent the French and Germans from isolating Britain.
We should have no such fears.
First, it is no secret that over the past 50 years, all Britain’s major moves towards Europe have been made by Conservative political figures or governments. It was Winston Churchill who in 1946 first spoke of “the United States of Europe” (though, to be fair, he excluded Britain from this grandiose scheme). It was Harold Macmillan who asked that Britain be admitted into the common market in 1962. It was Edward Heath who in 1973 took the country in. It was Margaret Thatcher who agreed to the creation of the single market in 1986. It was John Major who accepted the Maastricht treaty in 1992. With such a record, why should we worry?
Second, Europe has changed a lot since the Conservatives were last in power. France said No to the European constitution in 2005 and is now closer to your special partner, the US, while Germany has become more assertive. The Lisbon treaty, which has little relevance to today’s problems in Europe, is by no means a federalist treaty. It gives more power to national parliaments to prevent European legislation infringing on national prerogatives. So Britain is not in danger of being summoned to surrender national sovereignty to Brussels – at least any time soon.
Third, there is no need to underline the magnitude – and the similarity – of the problems our countries face at home and abroad. Although both Britain and France enjoy strong states, rich and proud histories, and enviable international status, neither they nor Germany – nor any other country in Europe – can succeed on their own in this world. We need to join forces and yes, share sovereignty in many areas. We must stop engaging in the kind of beggar-thy-neighbour policies that led us to disaster in the 20th century and could marginalise us further in the 21st.
So, as your government enters the European arena, there are two options. Either we can return to the past (bickering about the common agricultural policy and the British rebate; battling over a UK opt-out on European legislation), or we can take another route and see what the UK and France, together with other partners in Europe, can propose to make the European Union more relevant to our citizens’ needs at home and more respected in the world. If you choose this second alternative, you could make a real difference for Europe.
Mr Sarkozy will be in London on June 18 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of General Charles de Gaulle’s famous radio broadcast urging the French to resist tyranny. That historic call and the defeat of Nazism would not have been possible without the statesmanship, generosity and vision of Churchill as well as the courage of the British people.
So let us be bold. When the French president visits, do not just review the urgent matters we face or repeat that what unites us is more important than what divides us. Why not launch “l’Appel du 18 juin 2010” to declare that Britain and France have decided to join forces to make the EU a relevant, meaningful and trusted force in the world?
We will see more of Europe, not less, in the future. It is in our common interest and it is also what the Americans wish – a more united Europe with a clearer voice in the world. So it is up to our governments to take the lead – not to oppose what comes out from Brussels but to shape what is decided in Brussels. This is the moment to show leadership – a rare commodity today.
The writer was French ambassador to the UK (2002-2007) and is special adviser to the Blackstone Group
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