Listening to President Sarkozy yesterday was a salutary experience. The setting was both splendid, and redolent of more difficult times in Anglo-French relations. Maybe the organisers had a sense of humour, asking our guest to address us in a room dedicated to British royalty and dominated by the hanging of magnificent tapestries of the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo. The President spoke with passion, seeking to woo his new friends. He sidestepped the pitfalls of the place brilliantly, referring to times when we had been rivals rather than allies, and valuing the differences in our approach to monarchy, whilst showing understanding and enthusiasm for our democracy.
The address was divided into two parts. The first was all Duke of Alencon â€“ it was 2008 going on 1579. Mr Sarkozy wooed us, praising England and English virtues. He spoke movingly of the sacrifices many British people made to save liberties in Europe in the two world wars. He told us how much he admired our independent freedom loving spirit, and how much it meant to him to be speaking in the Mother of Parliaments to Lords and Commons assembled. He explained how important the UK had been to Europeâ€™s past, and how much he wanted a new alliance or friendship for Europeâ€™s future.
He had in mind a new romance that was not exclusive. He freely confessed his continuing commitment to the Franco-German axis that has been the centrepiece of the EU for many years, and said he understood we would wish to continue our special relationship with the USA and would not wish to sever links with our Commonwealth. His general vision was of us both reforming world institutions together in the name of democracy. He wooed well.
Then I felt we shifted to 1802, and we heard echoes of a different leader of France. Sarkozy came over as a peaceful Napoleon, pursuing French interests with a strong eye for the diplomatic opportunities.It was the spring of peace of that year, with many British politicians rejoicing at the new friendship they had negotiated with Napoleon, travelling to Paris to see more of the powerful phenomenon that had emerged from French political turmoil. Months later Napoleon was frustrated by his unflattering portrayal in the British press, whilst Britain did not feel France’s leader had kept to his promises.
Sarkozyâ€™s vision was not our vision of greater freedom for individuals, companies and institutions. It was not a call to free trade and less regulation, nor a shared passion for less government and less central intervention. His ideas were more Euro socialist than free enterprise democratic, with the French view of Europe gaining a new ally to project it further on the Euro stage. He wanted Britain to join him in an agenda of reform, but not the reforms many of us would want.
Many MPs and peers loved the speech, and heard the President say he now recognised the need to reform the Common Agricultural Policy. They did not reflect on what he went of to say. To him the main problem with the CAP seemed to be that we let in too much agricultural product from outside the EU, not too little. He wants stronger controls over quality and cleanliness to keep out â€œunwanted â€œ product. I did not hear him say the CAP is an affront to the developing world and a scandal for domestic consumers, so it should be swept away.
Some heard him say he was much more of an Atlanticist than previous French leaders, and keen on fighting the Taliban. But he did not say France would definitely send more troops to the hottest part of the conflict, and seemed to want to press on with a European defence alliance between the two greatest military powers in Europe on a basis that might not be a strength to NATO.
His language was more Euro protectionist than free trade and free enterprise in the passages that contained any detail at all. He believes in national champions, sector strategies, and all that panoply of governments picking winners that we had to challenge and change in the UK many years ago. He seems to want more laws on employment in the belief that these offer worker protection rather than destroy jobs. He voices the usual EU agenda of solidarity, intervention and protection.
He had studied the views of our Prime Minister well. He played on his wish to join the PM in a Euro drive against climate change, and constantly stressed the Brown catchphrase that the UK has to be engaged in the EU. He reassured us that the era of institutional change in the EU is over and now we can see what can be done with the â€œreformedâ€ EU of the Lisbon Treaty. There was no institutional changes left showing above the parapet whatever might be going on behind closed doors in Brussels. He offered those of who want less European government nothing, other than his casual admission that Europe is a â€œdifficultâ€ subject on this side of the Channel, and that he had been on the losing side in the permitted French referendum on the EU constitution, which clearly had not phased him. There was no sense of irony in the way he put the two parts of his speech together. The first longer part, was brilliant praise of the different British temperament and interests, seeking an independent freedom loving democracy. The second part was a request that we commit ourselves to a centralised over governed European project that limits and damages those very freedom loving democratic virtues for which we at our best have stood.
My worry is we will as a country pay too high a price for fine French words without seeking delivery of the true reforms for freedom and free enterprise that the UK should expect of its European partners. We should judge the new French President not by his address â€“ it would be wrong to complain that it was too long or too inflexible, or to praise it too highly for its fine sentiments and moving passages about our more recent past together. We should judge him by whether or not the French are now willing to reform the CAP in a way which cuts its costs to consumers and taxpayers and helps the developing world.