Cher Monsieur Rocard
Although I am not one of the “English friends” you urge to “get out of the European Union before you wreck it” – I am Welsh – I was deeply offended and somewhat saddened by your Le Monde tirade against the country whose passport I hold.
I write this as someone who enjoys seeing his rugby side beat ‘Les Bleus’ most years but remains a huge fan of all things French – with the exception of snails, Marine Le Pen, your late night talk-shows and occasional bouts of petulant chauvinism from former prime ministers. Indeed, my partner is from Paris, my daughters have French names and nationality, we spend most of our holidays in your beautiful country and I speak the language of Moliere as well as anyone schooled in Swansea and living in Brussels can be expected to. So I am the last person you could accuse of being a Little Englander or French-basher – which made reading your rant against Britain all the more depressing.
Firstly, publishing an article laced with such bitterness towards the United Kingdom on the day Queen Elizabeth was laying a wreath in Paris for the thousands of British soldiers who gave their lives to liberate France 70 years ago was perhaps not the most diplomatic thing to do. As a former prime minister I would have expected you to have a little more tact than to insult a monarch who was an officer in World War II while many of your compatriots were doling out brie baguettes to Nazi invaders.
I was also astonished at how little you seem to understand both Britain and the European Union. You claim that the ‘English’ – a schoolboy error when referring to the United Kingdom, a country also composed of Welsh, Scottish and northern Irish nations – “do not like Europe.” You obviously have not spent much time in Britain, where it is almost impossible to support a major football team that is not made up of or managed by Europeans, walk down a high street without shopping in European stores like Zara, Lidl or H&M, buy a pint of beer not brewed by Germans, Belgians or Czechs or even pay an electricity bill or take a train that is not run by a French company like EDF or RATP. The millions of Brits who visit France, Spain, Italy and other European countries every year also attest to a people who love Europe but are lukewarm about the European Union. Having spent more time in France than Britain over the last two decades, I would have no hesitation in saying that British people are more open to the world than French – who tend to buy French cars, eat French food and take French holidays (often for good reason).
Of course, if you equate Europe with the European Union – another pretty basic mistake – you have more of a case. Britain did not join the European Economic Community when the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957. However, it did apply to join four years later and was vetoed by that “giant” – as you call him – President Charles de Gaulle. His reasons for nixing Harold Macmillan’s application, which he set out in a 1963 press conference, are worth rereading today – precisely because they show a much more profound understanding of the “very special, very original habits and traditions” of this proud island people than you do. De Gaulle again vetoed Britain’s candidacy in 1967 – little over a year after he refused to send ministers to Brussels (the “empty chair crisis’) because the then EEC wanted to meddle with generous subsidies to French farmers, give greater powers to the European Parliament and introduce more majority-voting. Hardly the actions of a model European.
A selective interpretation of history is a common thread throughout your article, which the Guardian helpfully translated in the interests of Franco-British entente cordiale. Winston Churchill did indeed call for a “United States of Europe” in his famous Zurich speech of 1946. But he was also the prime minister who refused to join the European Coal and Steel Community in the early 1950’s and told De Gaulle in 1944: “Each time we must choose between Europe and the open sea, we shall always choose the open sea.”
For someone who was prime minister at a crucial time for the continent – during discussions on creating a single currency that has divided the Union and brought misery to millions of Europeans – you also appear to suffer from acute historical amnesia when it comes to the recent history of the EU. You write that Britain “never, ever allowed even the smallest step towards greater integration” – conveniently forgetting that it was the UK that was behind the EU’s first major treaty change – the Single European Act – that a Conservative government signed the Maastricht Treaty (the biggest expansion of the EU’s powers to date) and that the treaties of Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon were all rubber-stamped by British premiers.
Likewise, your claim that the French government supported each enlargement hardly tallies when we remember Francois Mitterand’s forthright opposition to German unification, Jacques Chirac’s scolding of new central European states for supporting the Iraq War (“You missed a good opportunity to shut up”) and Paris’ decision to bar workers from new member states from working in France after they joined in 2004. “Double-dealing” Britain – which treats Europeans with “contempt” in your opinion – opened its doors from day one – and over a million came.
You paint a picture of the UK as a wrecker – despite it being behind some of the EU’s biggest success stories – such as the single market French firms have profited so much from, the smashing of state monopolies you protected as prime minister and the enlargement of the EU to extend the Union’s zone of peace and prosperity eastwards.
You also claim that, having watered down new rules, Britain “tore them up by seeking derogations.” If I remember correctly, it was France and Germany that ripped up the Growth and Stability Pact that was meant to oversee the Eurozone. France favours derogations as much as the British – for example its ‘cultural exception’ to protect its ailing film industry. And when it comes to actually applying EU laws – rather than calling for new ones to be added – Britain is always near the top of the league, with France languishing way behind it.
Monsieur Rocard, your argument is forcefully made. But it would have been more credible if it hadn’t been written less than two weeks after a quarter of your compatriots hadn’t voted for the extreme right-wing National Front, which flatly opposes the EU’s two biggest projects – the euro and the free movement of its citizens. Indeed, in recent opinion polls the French appear as hostile to the EU than the famously euroskeptic British. In a Pew Research Center survey carried out in May 2013, only 41% had a “good opinion” of the EU, against 43% in Britain. Most French view the EU as intrusive, inefficient and divorced from their needs – hardly breaking news given they voted ‘yes’ to Maastricht by less than 1% and killed the constitutional treaty in a 2005 referendum.
Countries that would like to see Britain leave the EU should be careful what they wish for. A UK exit would make the European Union poorer – London still pays in more to the EU budget than it gets back – more protectionist and weaker on the world stage. The 28-member club would lose a nuclear-armed, permanent member of the UN Security Council, which – along with France – is the only other EU country able to protect and project its values by force if necessary. That is not in the EU’s interests and it is not in Britain’s.
Ultimately, I was more saddened than angry by your article – because you are clearly out of touch with the way the EU is evolving. The day after Marine Le Pen’s electoral triumph, your president – sounding uncannily like David Cameron – said the EU “must be more focused on its priorities, show more efficiency where it is needed and not add to things where it is unnecessary.” That is the same Francois Hollande, by the way, who urged the EU to create an “economic government” last year only to rail against Brussels for interfering in French affairs when the European Commission had the temerity to ask Paris to honour its Eurozone commitments and cut its debt.
Mr Rocard, you are also clearly out of touch with many of the French people I meet – whether living in Brussels, visiting London (isn’t curious that young French go to Britain to work, while elderly Brits go to France to retire?) teaching young French journalists in Lille or seeing friends and family in Paris and Montpellier. Most of these French are prouder about being French than most Brits are about being British. But they also see no contradiction between listening to the Arctic Monkeys – that’s a rock-group – and French electro-pop duo Daft Punk. They speak English without chastising themselves for abandoning Europe’s former lingua franca. They are hypercritical of the EU – even daring to question why the Union wastes €200 million commuting to its second home every month at the insistence of the French government. And they accept Britain for what it is – an awkward, uncomfortable member of the European Union that is better to have in the club than out.
Yours in Franco-British friendship