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Saturday, 9 November, 2002, 11:37 GMT
Rows, plots and snubs in Europe
British Prime minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac
Behind the smiles, a vintage row between heavyweights
Some of Europe's leaders have been publicly falling out. At the last European Union summit meeting, a much-publicised row took place between Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair over the EU's future spending plans.

The occasional flash of temper is only to be expected. But if national leaders are at odds over key policy matters, how will things work out when, as seems likely, the EU decides it is time for a new kind of leadership? William Horsley has this reporter's-eye view of some recent encounters between European leaders.

The Chirac-Blair exchange will surely go down in the annals of European summits as a vintage row - short but explosive.

It was also seasoned with some cultural stereotypes: Gallic haughtiness against Anglo-Saxon sang-froid.

Jacques Chirac, the most senior European leader, accosted Tony Blair as other astonished heads of government looked on.


The Chirac-Blair exchange was seasoned with some cultural stereotypes: Gallic haughtiness against Anglo-Saxon sang-froid

"You have been very rude", Mr Chirac said. "No-one has ever spoken to me like this."

No journalists claim to have witnessed the encounter, but the effect was clear when Mr Blair appeared in front of the press looking deadly serious, his eyes fixed on some point in the middle distance.

His message, which carefully did not mention France, was that it was "essential" for Europe to reform its Common Agricultural Policy, which was damaging to the developing world.

Substantial issue

What does this quarrel add up to?

The leaders of France and Britain had a blazing row which will be hard to resolve both in terms of their personal rapport, and of the substantial issue.

At issue is whether 25 European countries in a soon-to-be enlarged European Union should go on devoting most of their common budget to supporting one group of people - farmers, especially French ones.

Schroeder (left) and Chirac
Schroeder and Chirac: The real motor of Europe
Mr Blair's provocation, it appears, was to ask his summit colleagues if it was not hypocritical to claim to be champions of free trade while signing up to a highly protectionist policy on farm goods for the next 10 years.

But the dominant sound of that summit, if you believe the way my French and German colleagues reported it, was that of the old Franco-German "motor" of European integration revving up again.

Rows, plots and snubs

The moment of ignition was when Mr Chirac and the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder emerged from a closed-door meeting in a Brussels hotel to announce to the journalists standing in the pouring rain a surprise agreement on the big issue that has long divided them - farm spending.


New grudges and tensions will also be brought to the EU table, among them high tensions between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus

The series of rows, snubs and plots in the European family has become spectacular.

Take the revved-up Chirac-Schroeder motor.

Close Europe-watchers are suspicious and want to see if it keeps going.

Before the last summit it was an open secret in Paris and Berlin that the two men - to put it politely - didn't get on.

In the recent German election campaign, Mr Chirac conspicuously awarded France's highest medal for foreigners, the Legion of Honour, to Mr Schroeder's rival Edmund Stoiber, a fellow-conservative.

Anti-Americanism

But Mr Schroeder has an even more serious personal problem on his hands. He is widely seen as having won re-election in September only thanks to some crude anti-Americanism.

In the campaign I saw how the German chancellor tore up his country's long record of loyalty to its most important ally.

At one election rally after another he accused President Bush's America of "playing around" with war against Iraq.


I like the suggestion in a letter to The Times. The writer said that in view of how things are decided in Europe, why not call it... France

George W Bush's closest advisers say curtly that he has "poisoned" relations with the US.

German Government leaders now get a frosty reception across the water, and the American president still has not sent the traditional message of congratulation to Gerhard Schroeder on his election success.

Mr Schroeder quickly showed how worried he was.

The victory champagne had not even been put away before he made a lightning visit to London to shake hands with Tony Blair, in a display that said to his own people: "Look, I still have friends. Everything is all right."

Diplomatic dagger

But alliances in Europe are fickle things these days.

In the corridors of the Brussels summit, Mr Schroeder and Mr Chirac ganged up on Mr Blair.

It's no surprise that President Chirac flashed his diplomatic dagger, suggesting Britain's long-standing special deal, the rebate that limits the size of British contributions to the EU's finances, should be "re-examined".

Valerie Giscard d'Estaing, the chairman of the ongoing
Valerie Giscard d'Estaing: Backing the USE - United States of Europe
More shocking for the British side was that, according to a usually reliable source, Mr Schroeder chipped in to the discussion about the British rebate, turning to Mr Blair and saying in English: "It's a real problem, Tony."

When the European Union expands - as it may well do in little more than one year from now - there will be much celebration.

But new grudges and tensions will also be brought to the EU table, among them the Czechs' worries about Germans returning to the Sudetenland, and high tensions between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus.

New name?

All this shows how diverse a continent Europe is.

Not quite a United States of Europe. Yet that is one of the names that's being suggested as a replacement for the boring old European Union.

The idea is backed by the French elder statesman, Valerie Giscard d'Estaing, the chairman of the ongoing "Convention on the Future of Europe".

He also suggests that Europe's troublesome differences might be smoothed over if we all agreed to choose one man to be the president of "United Europe", or the United States of Europe, or whatever it may be called.

On past evidence, it would be quite something for all the present EU leaders to agree on such a momentous change.

Meanwhile we are all invited to think of a new name for the EU.

I like the suggestion in a letter to The Times. The writer said that in view of how things are decided in Europe, why not call it... France.


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30 Oct 02 | Politics
29 Oct 02 | Politics
28 Oct 02 | Europe
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