Franco-British Relations

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 12:30 pm on 23rd May 1991.

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Photo of Sir Anthony Meyer Sir Anthony Meyer , Clwyd North West 12:30 pm, 23rd May 1991

I must declare an interest as I am the chairman of the Franco-British parliamentary relations committee and deputy chairman of the British section of the Franco-British Council. I have never made and am unlikely to make a penny in profit out of those activities.

It is difficult to speak of Anglo-French relations without lapsing into well-meaning platitudes. I am pleased that so many people in Britain derive an agreeable impression of France from programmes like "'Allo, 'Allo" and from the elegant jottings of Mr. Peter Mayall and the accounts of his life in Provence. I share his passion for that delectable region.

However, there is another France which is more a matter for our discourse. It is a France that has long since outstripped our living standards. It is the France of Peugeot Talbot, of the Compagnie Generale des Eaux, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, and the great public works which ensure that all regions of France will have swift access by road and rail to the Channel tunnel without necessarily having to pass through Paris from the day that the tunnel is opened.

That other France is the country which has made up for its lack of natural energy resources by the most ambitious and successful nuclear energy programme in the world. It is a country which now has for the first time a woman as its head of Government, the formidable Madam Edith Cresson, who was well known in her previous ministerial capacity to several present and former Cabinet Ministers. She was well liked, but also somewhat awesomely respected.

It is that vibrant and sometimes over-thrustful France which is now one of our main partners in the European Community. The 600 years of enmity to the beginning of this century and the close alliance in two wars during the century are no longer what concern us now. We are now concerned with the future. Nor should we concern ourselves too much with purely bilateral Anglo-French relations as such.

I served for five years in the British embassy in Paris in the 1950s. I was lucky enough to serve under two great ambassadors. Oliver Harvey taught me to distinguish between the pays-légale and the pays-réel and Gladwyn Jebb taught me to recognise and to urge the opportunities for Britain to get alongside France in the building of a united Europe. However, three of my five years had elapsed before I discovered that there was an official sitting somewhere in the depths of the Quay d'Orsay who dealt with Great Britain. He subsequently turned out to be the French Foreign Minister and then ambassador to the United Kingdom.

What really matters now is how our two countries work together or fail to do so in the European Community in the maintenance of world security and in promoting the development of poorer countries in the third world.

There are certain things which I and those who care about good relations between our two countries would like to see done to improve those relations further. The Franco-British Council, the body set up by the late President Pompidou and my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), set out to promote closer co-operation in matters outside the direct competence of Government. It is duly grateful to the Government for their generous moral support and the only slightly less generous financial support for the council's work. However, the fact remains that the support given by both the French and the British Governments for those activities pales into near invisibility beside the huge resources which have been poured into Franco-German co-operation since the understanding between General de Gaulle and President Adenauer and which provides for a massive programme of exchanges between young people and of language teaching.

Despite that huge governmental effort to develop Franco-German relations, there is a still larger latent support both in this country and in most parts of France for Anglo-French exchanges and for the learning of our two very dissimilar languages. It is quite right that industry on both sides of the channel, in particular firms that trade extensively in our two countries, should make the major contribution to exchanges from which it derives direct and tangible benefit. Those programmes of exchanges—I can vouch from the happy experience of my own constituency when such exchanges resulted in the twinning of Colwyn with Roissy en Brie—need priming by a judicious injection of funds at the right time and at the right level by Governments.

As I have said, direct Anglo-French relations are a less profitable matter to study than the role that our two countries play in partnership or in rivalry on the European or world stages.

The recent Gulf crisis demonstrated that, despite some differences in assessment in the early stages—differences which, I am sorry to say, were deliberately magnified and distorted by a few in this House and by all too many in the popular press who imagine that they can win cheap popularity by jibes at the French—our two countries are clearly designated as the two leaders. I go so far as to say that they are the only two significant principals in any European activity outside the NATO area. It would be seemly for the British media to acknowledge rather more readily than they do the quite exceptional role that French relief agencies, notably Médecins sans Frontières, are playing in that and similar emergencies.

The mention of NATO reminds me that one of the biggest obstacles to closer defence co-operation between Britain and France—the only two nuclear powers in Europe—namely, French non-participation in the NATO command structure, is beginning at long last to show some slight signs of weakening in practice if not yet in theory. Difficulties between our two countries—sometimes painful difficulties—will continue. The agricultural policy of the European Community has long been and will continue for some years yet to be a fruitful source of quarrel.

Even though the protection of her domestic agriculture has ceased to be the all-dominating political issue in the now highly industrialised France, folk memories die hard. French public opinion did not reprove as sharply as it should have the actions of impoverished and enraged sheep farmers from the stony soil of the south-west who so brutally set fire to a lorryload of live sheep from the overstocked grassy hills of the Welsh countryside.

Clearly, the common agricultural policy will remain for some time yet a source of potential difficulty rather than opportunity for closer co-operation between our two countries. I very much hope that our Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will not rest content with that state of affairs or curry favour in this House or elsewhere by playing up those differences. We need, can get, and to a large extent are getting the close co-operation of the French in the rapid and fundamental evolution of the European Community which is taking place.