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I don’t buy it

Posted by Richard Friday, August 27, 2004

Loathe as I am to disagree with Ambrose Evans Pritchard of The Daily Telegraph, I simply don't buy the headline of his latest story: Despair in Paris as British take top EU positions.

However, maybe there is no disagreement as Ambrose would not have written the headline and journalists often do not see the headline until they see their own story in print.

Nevertheless, Ambrose's thesis is that "British bureaucrats are racking up one success after another in securing coveted posts in the new European Commission to the chagrin of the French, who have traditionally dominated it".

Admired for a no-nonsense style, British fonctionnaires have secured a high profile as chiefs of staff in the team put together by José Barroso, the commission president. The quiet summer coup by the British has set off a fresh bout of soul-searching in Paris, where angst over lost influence at the heart of the European Union has become a part of daily discourse.
That is as may be but, in fact, that British civil servants may be in high positions is not necessarily any cause for rejoicing as so many of them are notoriously Europhile. There was, for instance, some crowing when Sir John Kerr was appointed secretary general to the EU constitutional convention but, for all the difference it made to the draft, it might just as well have been a Frenchman.

But then to call in aid Jean-Pierre Chevènement to support the claim of loss of influence is somewhat thin. Considering his long-term opposition to the “project” (see previous Blog), this is rather like quoting Bill Cash to support an argument that Britain is losing influence in Europe.

For sure, French influence has been diluted with the current round of enlargement, but then all the existing member states have lost out. And it is all too premature to expect that the accession countries will necessarily support British ambitions, or an Atlanticist agenda, especially as Blair seems to be intent on getting into bed with the French over defence.

Furthermore, one worries when the myth is continually perpetrated of France losing out because it only gained the transport portfolio on the commission. It cannot be said enough that this is a very powerful post, with huge opportunity for patronage (see earlier Blog). In many ways, it is far more powerful and influential than Mandelson’s trade position.

And, contrary to some reports, Michel Barnier, former commissioner and now Chirac’s foreign minister, is actually taking a robust line to counter claims – which come largely from opposition politicians – of France’s loss of influence.

"Cessons de nous dénigrer!" he angrily told Le Monde, pouring scorn on "this strange collective psychoanalysis" on the topic of decline . "We are very well represented in the European institutions, often with prestige functions", he said. This is also the case in the European Parliament, where French MEPs have obtained five committee presidencies. “France”, he said, has a place and a role in Europe: it defends the project and its ideas. It takes part in all the policies, their design and their implementation. It is a leading force in economic matters, justice, the police force, common defence".

As for Barrot, Barnier called him "a man of conviction, experiment, courage". He will be one of the five vice-presidents. "This is a position of influence which one should not neglect in a team of twenty-five members, where the need for co-ordination and teamwork will be greater than in the past".

France will be right there in the thick of it, defending its interests. Reports of its demise are being greatly exaggerated.