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France, Britain clash as ideal of European solidarity falters


PARIS - When French and Dutch voters rejected a European constitution in recent weeks, political leaders agreed that Europe was headed for trouble.

Few people, though, seemed to realize how much trouble and how quickly it would arrive.

As illustrated here yesterday by a frigid meeting between French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the postwar dream of a politically unified Europe has not only stalled. It is moving backward.

Expansions of the union have stalled or are being canceled, and policies that have produced accomplishments such as ensuring Europe could feed itself are suddenly endangered.

The Blair-Chirac clash is ostensibly over monetary and agricultural policy. But the underlying issues are larger, and with the European Union in disarray and Europe's most powerful leaders fighting for their political lives, the rejection of the constitution seems to have quickly moved the all-for-one guiding philosophy of the European Union to one of every country for itself.

The French president, along with his closest ally, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, have dominated the EU for years, and Chirac's new squabbles with Blair have shifted attention away from the humiliation the French president suffered at the polls.

With Schroeder and Chirac in political difficulty in their respective home countries and with Britain taking over the presidency of the EU July 1, Blair has not shied from the fight, and even the British newspapers that have been blasting him at every opportunity have rallied behind the prime minister.

The implications of the battle touch everything from the economic well-being of Europe to the worldwide political dominance of the United States and human rights conditions in non-EU countries on the continent.

And most troubling of all for the prospects of a unified Europe, the aftermath of the referendums in France and the Netherlands has verified what many analysts had predicted: the solidifying of a European East-West divide.

"We are at a historical turning point in Europe that should not be underestimated," said Dominique Moisi, senior adviser to the French Institute of International Relations. "I would not say we are seeing the end of the European Union. I would say we are seeing the end of post-war Europe as we have known it."

The dispute between Blair and Chirac centers on agricultural payments made to French farmers by EU members and a rebate that Britain has received since then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher negotiated a settlement with the EU 20 years ago.

Chirac wants the rebate - about $5.4 billion a year - canceled. Blair and Britain, he said, should give up the funds as a gesture of European solidarity.

Fine, Blair responded. He is willing to discuss the rebate so long as Chirac agrees to put the $12.6 billion the EU pays French farmers every year on the table.

"What you're seeing played out is countries retreating into not what's best for the European Union, necessarily, but what's best for their own country or for them politically," said Richard Whitman, an expert on European politics at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

"To a degree, you've always seen that within the European Union - but not to this degree."

When Blair arrived here yesterday for talks with Chirac, it was after days of dueling press conferences in which the two leaders dropped all pretense of diplomacy and instead accused each other of undermining Europe.

Yesterday didn't improve matters, when Chirac declined a joint press conference and Blair decided to hold his own, alone, at the British embassy here after meeting the French president at the nearby Elysee Palace.

"Obviously, there is a sharp disagreement," Blair said. "I think it's difficult to see these differences being bridged, but of course we continue to talk to people."

The U.K. rebate was negotiated by Thatcher in 1984 to make up for the discrepancy in aid received by farmers in Britain compared with those in France.

The rebate is not a gift that should be returned, Blair said at his news conference, but a mechanism for making contributions to the EU more equitable.

Britain and France have similar-sized economies, but Britain would pay 15 times the amount France pays to the EU budget without the rebates, Blair argued. Even with the rebate, Britain pays about twice as much as what the French pay, he said.

French-British relations have plummeted to perhaps the worst they have been since 1973, when Charles de Gaulle vetoed London's bid to join the Common Market, and there is no sign of a thaw.

Blair argued yesterday that part of the reason that residents in European Union countries were rejecting strengthened ties was because they felt they were not being listened to. They want its growth moderated and its finances in order before accepting poorer countries as new members - which would cost wealthier EU countries even more money.

The two leaders have never liked each other much, but their current dispute threatens to leave the 25-nation European Union without a new, long-term budget.

A summit scheduled for tomorrow holds little promise of a settlement.

"Europe is groping and grasping, and this is but one sign of that," said Christoph Bertram, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "It's important to realize that this argument is not the cause of the weakening of the European Union. It's a product of the weakening of the European Union, and you can bet that it is only the first of such products."

Something is happening in Europe - with the relationships between leaders and between countries, with the way people here see themselves and each other - but typical of the continent lately, there is no consensus among leaders on precisely what is happening or what it may mean, he said.

But it is apparent that when voters rejected the constitution, they were in fact rejecting the direction of the European Union as a whole.

Many people in wealthier, Western European countries resented the recent inclusion of 10 poorer Eastern European countries, and among many analysts the constitution's rejection was a message to slow down the growth.

"What it means to be European these days depends on where in Europe you are," said Bertram. "I happen to think people in the EU want to be European - but they want to be Western European and not have that diluted with rapid growth."

Already, EU foreign ministers agreed this week to make no mention at tomorrow's summit of the pending inclusion of Romania and Bulgaria, which had been scheduled for 2007 but could be delayed.

Talks scheduled for next year with Turkey, which would become the first predominantly Muslim country to join the union, will also get no mention.

And the ratification of the constitution, which Chirac insisted other countries - including Britain - carry out despite his country's rejection of it, was shelved Monday after Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic said they would have difficulty passing it.

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