Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Time for a gesture

So, this morning we see a down-page leader in The Daily Telegraph, which does not even seem to be on-line, giving advice on "What Blair must tell Chirac." It says, Chirac's "bluster over the British rebate is an attempt to divert attention from the ruins of his ambition to subject all Europe to the French 'social model'".

Wrong. In part, it is a diversion, but the French are playing a much more subtle game. As things have got clearer over the days since the French and Dutch rejections of the constitution, what is now emerging is the classic French negotiating strategy.

But it is no wonder that we so often get comprehensively shafted by the French, when our dismal foreign office, and its fellow travellers – to say nothing of the media - have not yet after all these years even begun to understand the French game.

From time immemorial, a classic negoitating ploy – in fact the classic ploy – is for them to drop into negotiations a totally outrageous demand, usually at the last minute. Having dropped their bombshell, they then remain absolutely inscrutable and unmoving, while the other side splutters and protests.

Played with finesse, the French can usually arrange it so that they are then able to flounce out, mainly for effect but especially to get in first with the media, denouncing the other side for being so unreasonable in refusing the entirely "legitimate" requests of the French delegation.

Having first squared up a number of allies – either having bought them off or bullied them unmercifully – the French can then return to the conference table and, in the spirit of "compromise", scale back their original demands and settle for some lesser, but still outrageous concession – which is what they wanted in the first place.

It works every time. Every time they try it on, they walk away with the spoils, leaving the Brits floundering and squeaking, wondering what the hell hit them.

And here we go again. As the newspapers and broadcast media go into saturation mode over "CAP reform" and the rebate, Chirac and his pals in the Quay d'Orsay must be wetting themselves with merriment as they watch Blair squirm.

The French president, like every other continental leader, knows full well that the British rebate is non-negotiable. They would have to be terminally stupid if they did not realise that the once thing Blair cannot do is give it up. The iconic significance of "the rebate that Maggie won" is such that the political fall-out would be collossal if he ever caved in.

So, in the final analysis, they are not after the rebate. It is a negoitating ploy. And what does little Jacqui want most? He most desperately wants the constitution ratification process to continue. If, at the last minute of the European Council – playing it right to the wire – he concedes on one, as he must, he might get the other. That, at least, is the most credible game plan.

Whether Chirac gets what we wants is now in doubt. Having looked at the post-referendum opinion polls, the "colleagues" are beginning to wobble, and L'Escroc may not be able to hold the line. But, to date, he has played a blinding, if predictable game.

The Telegraph leader, however, is right in one respect. It notes that Chirac last week asked Blair "to make a gesture". The paper thinks that the prime minister should oblige. Indeed he should.

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