HC Deb 23 May 1991 vol 191 cc1091-8 12.30 pm
Sir Anthony Meyer (Clwyd, North-West)

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.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I pay tribute to the excellent work that my hon. Friend has done to foster Anglo-French relations. Does he agree that, in development of European political union and European monetary union negotiations, it is striking and interesting to note that the other great ancient nation, France, with its long history, does not appear to fear any loss of sovereignty, as some of our colleagues in the House and perhaps outside do? Those who fear it are a minority. The French believe that, by pursuing further integration in the Community, they will increase their real, practical sovereignty and retain all their powers of decision making.

Sir Anthony Meyer

My hon. Friend's comment prompts two observations. First, the French are realistic about these matters. They clearly understand that the trappings of sovereignty are relatively unimportant and that what matters is the extent to which a country can exercise real influence in the world. Therefore, the French are prepared to accept limitations which may not be far reaching in order to secure more effective co-operation within the European Community.

Secondly, it is welcome that the British Government have recovered and are reasserting freedom of manoeuvre on integration and are prepared, in order to secure vital British objectives, to pay lip service if necessary to ideals which are strongly held on the other side of the channel but which do not excite such support and enthusiasm here. Such ideals matter dearly to our continental partners. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) and I have been struck by the way in which the Government are exerting that freedom of action.

There is a great deal of common ground between the British and the French about the structure of the European Community. We should build on that common ground. We are the two nations with the longest natural national histories and the most clearly defined identities. We are the only two nuclear powers in the Community. We are the only two permanent members of the Security Council. We are the two nations which have retained from our previous empires a continuing and well-informed interest in developments in every part of the globe. We two are as well-placed as any nation to strike the right balance between pursuing closer integration in Europe while holding open the door to the newly-free countries of eastern Europe.

France, alone in the EC, straddles the divide between the northern and southern halves of the European Community. Clearly it has a vital role to play in the immediate enlargement of the Community to include the European Free Trade Association countries. So vital is it to ensure that we maximise co-operation between France and Britain at this critical moment that on both sides of the channel we should bite off our tongues before giving vent to petty irritations. It is a stroke of good fortune that at this moment the two countries are represented by two diplomats—Sir Ewen Fergusson in Paris and M. Bernard Dorn in London—for whom better understanding between our two countries is a veritable passion.

I also derive considerable comfort from the presence at the Dispatch Box of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), who will reply to the debate.

12.42 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones)

A considerable time has passed since the House last discussed the important subject of Anglo-French relations, although there was a debate in another place on 18 June last year which coincided with the 50th anniversary of General de Gaulle's historic call to arms from Carlton gardens. I welcome this opportunity to take stock on the anniversary of the defence of Calais in 1940. I am especially pleased, and it is appropriate, that the debate was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer), who told us something about the history of his connection with France. Of course, he omitted to tell us that he served with distinction in the second world war and was wounded in northern France. He has spent the whole of his parliamentary career fostering Anglo-French relations through the Franco-British parliamentary group.

It often passes unobserved how many hon. Members on both sides of the House devote a considerable amount of their time and energies to fostering relations between Britain and various parts of the world in which they happen to take an interest, for either constituency or personal reasons. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West is a particularly fine example.

Anglo-French relations have gone from strength to strength in recent years. We have powerful shared interests as members of the United Nations Security Council, as nuclear powers and as members of all the multilateral institutions which affect our interests. There is hardly any subject on which Britain and France do not now consult closely at all levels. The annual summit has developed into a forum for in-depth discussion of issues of real importance, including our mutual defence interests. This year's summit in France will see a continuation of that trend: substance rather than form, the best characteristic of Britain's relationship with France in the 1990s.

There are countless other contacts. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has had two warm and productive meetings with President Mitterrand since last November, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary sees his French counterpart almost as often as his own Cabinet colleagues. There are also many other long-standing historical links, such as those between veterans' associations, and cultural links, such as town twinning and youth exchanges. My hon. Friend referred to the town twinning that involves his constituency and he will be pleased to hear that my constituency, Watford, has an extremely successful town-twinning arrangement with Nanterre, which is just outside Paris. I agree with my hon. Friend that we must do everything that we can to build on these programmes and especially those that enable our young people to move freely between the two countries.

There are also extensive business links. A much more recent development, and one which we welcome, is the secondment of British and French diplomats to their sister ministries across the channel. I hope that the young diplomats who take part in the scheme do not have to wait for as long as my hon. Friend, when he was in Paris, to find a diplomat who looks after the interests of both Britain and France in the Quai d'Orsay and in our own Foreign Office.

The best-known non-governmental body that is active in the promotion of Anglo-French relations is the Franco-British Council. My hon. Friend is the deputy chairman of the British section. He is an active participant in the council's activities, which have made a significant contribution to Franco-British understanding since its inception in 1972. The Government support the council financially, with a grant of £74,500 in this financial year.

The council has an important role in bringing people together, in breaking down barriers and reducing stereotypes. A meeting last month to analyse the ways in which the British and French media have handled recent events was a good example of that useful activity. My hon. Friend left us in no doubt about the importance of the work carried out in that area. I sometimes think—I dare say that my hon. Friend may agree—that some people who live abroad take certain sections of the British press rather more seriously than we do. Nevertheless, problems can be created for us all.

It is more important than ever that Britain and France should understand each other and work closely together. I am confident that the Franco-British Council will continue its good work to this end which the Government support as a valuable complement to governmental activities.

As permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Britain and France have a role in all major international and regional issues. Both countries contribute in full measure to the deliberations of the Security Council and played a central part in the unprecedented agreement in the international community on the steps needed to reverse Saddam Hussein's aggression against Kuwait. We both sent a swift and sizeable military contingent to the multinational coalition which was forced to carry out the task. We are again working closely each day to alleviate the suffering of the Kurds and others who have fled the savage repression in Iraq. Franco-British co-operation over the crisis has been exemplary. During the difficult weeks of the recent past I spoke on several occasions to my French counterparts, including the Minister with responsibility for overseas development, who was a founder of Médecins sans Frontières. I think that we could claim that with the co-operation between France and Britain we led Europe and perhaps influenced the world in dealing with those matters.

A few more examples should suffice to demonstrate the breadth of Anglo-French relations nowadays. Britain and France both contributed substantially to the Paris charter for a new Europe adopted at the CSCE summit in Paris last November, which set the seal on the more co-operative international environment that has taken the place o f the cold war. The newly inaugurated European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, with its London site and French president, is a further symbol of the close co-operation between our two countries.

Britain and France both gladly gave up their rights and responsibilities as wartime allies following Germany's unification last year. We are both proud of our contribution to that historic event, which for both of us has cemented our partnership with Germany. The completion of the service tunnel across the channel and, yesterday, the first rail tunnel, gave Britain and France a physical link again, for the first time since the ice age. I look forward to the opening of the tunnel on 15 June 1993.

Trade relations between our two countries have shown a remarkable increase in recent years. Britain and France are each other's third-largest export market. Britain's exports to France reached £10.9 billion in 1990, an increase of 15 per cent. over the previous year. French exports to Britain have seen similar increases and the upward trend is continuing. Investment flows in both directions have increased noticeably. France is now by far the most important European investor in the British economy.

Defence and security, as my hon. Friend pointed out, are an important part of the relationship. Our positions, as the only European nuclear powers, and as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, give us a special range of shared interests and responsibilities, in addition to those that we jointly exercise as members of NATO and the Western European Union. We both have global interests and a global outlook and we both maintain a broad spectrum of military capabilities. Our presence together in the Gulf as the major European ground forces co-operating with the United States symbolised how much common ground we share.

Britain and France co-operate at all levels and over a wide range of defence matters. The Government attach great importance to that close collaboration. We worked closely together in the conventional forces in Europe negotiations and share a similar approach to future conventional arms control.

In the nuclear field as well there is regular dialogue across a broad range of issues. We agree with France about the need for a more effective European contribution to our collective defence arrangements. Under the active French presidency of the WEU, which ends next month, we have made progress together in developing some ideas for a stronger European defence identity based on the WEU.

Of course, we do not agree on everything. The United Kingdom and France have different attitudes to integration in NATO, although we hope that one outcome of the NATO review will be fuller participation by all the allies in the defence commitment to the alliance. However, we differ on the longer-term arrangements for European defence. We have urged that the debate in the inter-governmental conference on a common foreign and security policy should focus on substance, rather than mechanisms, but we and the French are at one in considering that the outcome of the various debates in progress this year should be both a reformed alliance and a stronger European pillar.

The Anglo-French summit in May 1990 agreed that there should be an enhanced programme of co-operation with particular emphasis on future security arrangements in Europe". The Prime Minister and President Mitterrand pursued this further when they met in January this year. I am confident that that range of issues will again be on their agenda at this year's summit. We also keep in close touch with the French Government, as with other EC Governments, on progress in the two inter-governmental conferences, to which my hon. Friend referred.

On political union, we share a good deal of common ground. We both, for instance, are very wary of ceding control to the Community, and hence to the Commission, in areas where we feel it more appropriate for national Governments to operate, either alone or in co-operation with each other. We agree on the overall structure—the architecture—of the "union" that is now under discussion in the inter-governmental conferences. That is, we both see the "union" as something different from, but including, the Community. We are both keen to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Community within that broader European "union".

There is also considerable common ground with the French Government in the inter-governmental conference on economic and monetary union. We are both agreed on the need to strengthen the ecu during the EMU process and on the need to establish some Community monetary institution with real tasks to perform in stage II. We also share the view that any European central bank should operate under political guidelines set by the Council. Even the United Kingdom reserve on participation in stage III the single currency union—is now accepted by partners, including France. Of course, there is still a great deal to negotiate, but both we and France are working to overcome our differences.

I feel, as I hope that my hon. Friends and other hon. Members feel, that there is a move in Europe, not just from Britain but towards Britain, to accommodate each other and to find common ground rather than emphasising and exacerbating differences. I hope that the British Government have played their part in bringing that about. I know that the French Government have also played a part.

We do not agree on everything, even under the broad heads of agreement. France, like the United Kingdom, is determined to protect her own national interests within the context of closer European co-operation. That is well understood and I am sure that when we are obliged to take a different line in the inter-governmental conference, for instance on questions of European social policy or the timing and content of economic monetary union stage II, differences of view and the reasons for them are well understood by both sides, because of the closer co-operation that we enjoy. We will continue to work constructively in the inter-governmental conference with the French and others for a satisfactory outcome acceptable to all.

We shall work for an outcome that enables the Community to take the necessary steps forward within the union. Those steps are necessary because the success that the Community has acheived through the single market, which the United Kingdom played such a prominent role in bringing about, has made the Community an important trading and economic bloc. Whatever our approach to it —our approach places an emphases on intergovernmental co-operation—we know that an economic bloc of such consequence must develop commensurate political and defence personalities. That is why my right hon. Friend has made proposals for an enhanced common security policy. That is why Britain and France are playing a leading role in discussing how the Western European Union, outside the union itself, can develop a European defence personality that will enable western Europe to defend its economic and strategic interests outside the NATO area.

Relations with France and Germany are at the heart of our European policy. As we move through the inter-governmental conference, the stakes are high but the prize, in terms of the future security, stability and prosperity of our continent, is also high. Productive relations with France and Germany are an important means to that end. Let no one be in any doubt that it is not only desirable but feasible to have good relations with both simultaneously. The vigorous pursuit of British interests does not require us to be permanently at odds with one or other of our partners. I am confident that, with Britain and France working together, we shall succeed in sustaining the objectives that I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West, with others of my hon. Friends and, I should like to think, with Opposition Members.