Francois Mitterand Helmut Kohl

Was there ever going to be space for Britain in Kohl and Mitterand’s Europe

Book review: Christopher Howarth [eurofacts (Vol 4 No 17) – 18th June 1999]

In this important study Dr Martin Holmes, an Oxford lecturer and prolific writer on European subjects, examines the history of the post-war Franco-German friendship.

In December 1998 Tony Blair stated in the Times, “There are real debates in Europe. Do we want economic reform or corporatism? Do we want a Europe which is building bridges or barriers to the US?… And there is a genuine debate about the European Social Model”. However Holmes does not see how Britain will ever be in a position to take part in or even influence this debate. Barring the way is the special relationship that has developed between successive French and German governments which has become the driving force behind the destination of a federal Europe, one with which Britain will feel less and less at ease.

The origins of this friendship lay in the genuine desire of France and Germany to bury the hatchet in the post 1945 era. France’s main concern was to bind Germany into a peaceful Europe while the Germans, fuelled by a desire to distance themselves from the Hitlerzeit, sought to use integration as a means of atonement. The first stage of this reached its height in France under the leadership of de Gaulle who saw an opportunity to build Europe into a power independent of the USA and the USSR. This he saw could be under the political leadership of France and based on economic policies mid way between the Anglo-Saxon and Soviet models.

To this end de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s entry as it would both upset France’s ability to lead Germany and introduce foreign “Anglo-Saxon” economic policies replacing his favoured model of “Rhineland capitalism”. De Gaulle was not anti-British but believed that “England’s very situation differs profoundly from those of the continentals”. Germany’s continuous desire to distance herself from the Third Reich enmeshed her in ever deepening integration. German unification has only heightened the desire for integration as she seeks again to prove her “user friendly” nature. France similarly responded to unification with a fresh impetus towards integration lest Germany change her mind and pursue an independent policy in the East. Holmes sees this as a tragedy, for in the process Germany has disregarded the twin pillars of her post war success and stability; the D Mark and its well-designed political system, both of which are being replaced by undemocratic European institutions.

For Holmes peace has sprung from a “Germany that is prosperous and democratic, rather than the German pursuit of European integration”. Integration has been the by-product of rather than the cause of peace. This leaves Blair’s assertion that, “it is our destiny to lead in Europe” looking rather hollow. Europe does not need or want new leadership and rejects the destiny Britain might wish to lead it to. France and Germany have known for many years where they are going and will not be moved off course by Britain’s new overture. It is Britain’s inability to understand or accept the aims of France and Germany that have led to her continued Euro angst. Incidentally Holmes concludes that de Gaulle was consciously acting in Britain’s best interest when he vetoed Britain’s membership. He knew that “England’s situation was different” and that her membership would become a marriage made in hell.

The novelty of this book is that it explains to a British audience something that has been known in France and Germany for at least 30 years, namely that the destination of Europe has always been towards political integration. The British people imagined they were joining a purely economic trade zone – though the political élite had, and still have, no illusions about the end-point: a single European state. To this central point Holmes adds some very perceptive comments on the unique nature of the Franco-German relations making this paper essential reading for anyone who takes more than a casual interest in the direction of European integration.