Comparison of Britain and France in their Approaches to EU Policy Issues

Comparison of Britain and France in their Approaches to EU Policy Issues

         Britain and France have traditionally been at polar opposites when it comes to their respective approaches to EU policy.  Britain faces strong public opposition at home toward full integration with the EU, and this has largely guided the reluctance of the UK to promote or concur on key issues of EU development, specifically the Lisbon Treaty, also known as the EU Constitution; adopting the common Euro currency, with the UK retaining the use of the British Pound; and generally with regard to issues of sovereignty, such as concerning EU direct taxation, trade protectionism, the “Special Relationship” with the United States, and matters of military alliance and defense.  France typically leads the charge to strengthen the EU, clearly because, in part, France sees itself as the natural leader of Europe, and also because a strong and united Europe would effectively blunt the historic superiority of the UK and the United States.  On practically every serious issue, and notwithstanding the 2005 rejection of the EU Constitution by the French people in a nationwide referendum, the policy goals of the EU have been the policy goals of France.

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The British people are said to be “Euroskeptics,” a term that indicates their aversion to the prevailing winds on the continent, and their general sense of distrust about the benefits that would derive from full participation in the European Union and/or from the EU attaining all of its stated goals and objectives.  The people of the UK want to keep their British Pound, their system of weights and measures, and their right to change their mind and become more or less intimate with Europe should events dictate.  The British want to make their own policies with regard to trade and finance, war and peace, and even to pull back from the EU entirely should the frequent changes of governments in London bring Ministers to power with less inclination to cooperate with the EU.

Also at the heart of British public opinion is the general sense that the European Union is not a representative institution, and the British hold dear their rights as an electorate.  They are opposed to the ratification of the EU Constitution without the matter being brought before the national vote of the people.  It has been clear from the beginning of the European Union that the participation of Britain has been reluctant at best, with most political parties in the UK making their platforms to conform to the sentiments of their constituents.  For example, the BNP (British National Party) has as the center of their platform:

            “Back to British Independence! - Comparison of Britain and France in their Approaches to EU Policy Issues introduction. –  We are opposed to the Single European                       Currency….At the same time, we are for the best possible relationship with our European neighbors and believe that the nations of Europe should be free to trade and cooperate whenever it is mutually beneficial, though without being forced   into a political and economic straitjacket – political unification.

Accordingly, we stand for British withdrawal from the European Union. In place of the EU, we intend to aim towards greater national self-sufficiency, and to work to restore      Britain’s family and trading ties with Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and to      trade with the rest of the world as it suits us.”

The Conservative Party, likely to oust Labour in the next elections, promises not to accept ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, and says: “(We) will leave the political EU and trade globally and freely. We will re-embrace today’s fast-growing Commonwealth and we will encourage UK manufacturing so that we make things again.”  The Labour Party is the only strong voice for unification with Europe, and their popularity is sinking under Gordon Brown’s leadership amidst the current economic crisis.  Andrew Duff, Liberal Democrat Party member of the European Parliament recently stated that “the UK is experiencing a nationalistic phase in its history, as a result of which the majority of UK parties are now opposed to the EU.”  It seems as if, as an aside to matters of policy, the collective nostalgia of the British for the glory days of the Empire has yet to entirely fade.  The British are not ready to have a continental power to rule over them.

            France currently holds the EU Presidency, and is at the forefront of efforts to expand EU power and influence both in Europe and abroad.  That is not to say that the people of France are much more enthusiastic about an EU “superstate” than the people of the UK are.  In 2005 the French people voted down the EU Constitution despite intense campaigning by then President Jacques Chirac.  But, unlike in Britain, the political class in France sees the will of the voters not as something to be fostered, but rather as something to be overcome.  The following observation by a high official in France is a clear illustration of this attitude.

            “Allowing citizens to shape policies, or even to make decisions directly, is viewed  by many as risky. It is argued that citizens have little fresh information, limited time to consider issues that are in the general interest, especially as these issues     are steadily getting more complex. This sort of thinking means that participatory budgets and citizen consultations are widely seen as best suited to local matters, for which citizens can understand the dimension and impact of a given policy  proposal. Most French analysts, not surprisingly, see consulting citizens on matters as complex as EU institutional arrangements as pure folly given the             results of the 2005 referendum there.”

            In France as in the UK, the peoples’ distaste for the EU is largely because they sense that the EU Constitution would permanently establish a government of ruling elites which lacks any pretext of being democratic or representative in its structure or operations.  Furthermore, if the objectives of the EU are fully realized, this would not be a loosely combined economic union as it is now, but a fully authorized international government complete with executive, legislative, and judicial powers, as well as a regular military.  Rather than change the EU organization to include direct democracy, the French establishment has launched an EU propaganda campaign using the buzzwords ’participation’, ’consultation’, ’bottom-up dialogue’, and ’deliberation’.”  In other words, France and the EU would love to make the common people of Europe think they have a voice as long as they don’t have to actually give them one.

            France led the EU voice against the Iraq war, and the refusal of France and the EU to participate willingly with the U.S. and UK in the War on Terror has caused a rift between France and NATO.  The government of France has been seeking for years to expand EU power to include an armed military force, and to use this force in a way that, some suspect and fear, would compete with and ultimately replace NATO as the key defense establishment in Europe.  Britain and the United States have opposed this move until recently, but now, with the election of President Obama in the United States, France could possibly be on their way to achieving this goal.  President Sarkozy of France has     offered to bring France back into full participation in NATO, “provided that America guarantees senior command posts for French officers within the Alliance and American endorsement of an increased EU defense identity.”  Sarkozy has since issued a series of policy statements.  His government therein affirms that “the European ambition stands as a priority. Making the European Union a major player in crisis management and international security is one of the central tenets of our security policy. France wants Europe to be equipped with the corresponding military and civilian capability.”  Sarkozy is further calling for:

“Redefinition of responsibility-sharing between America and Europe.”
“An explicit rejection of the idea that the EU act as a civilian complement to NATO.”
“A strong preference for buying European defense technologies.”
“A permanent operation headquarters in Brussels.”
“Common EU funding for military operations.”
“European exchange programs for military personnel.”
In an article published by the Heritage Foundation in April of this year, one British expert on the subject stated that “it would be a huge strategic error of judgment by the new U.S. Administration and the British government to continue supporting French ambitions for restructuring Europe’s security architecture. Such acquiescence would hand Paris an extraordinary degree of power and influence within NATO–power and influence well out of proportion to France’s actual military role in Alliance operations.  Providing France with such influence would also ultimately weaken the Anglo-American Special Relationship, shifting power away from Washington and London and toward continental Europe, while paving the way for the development of a separate European Union defense identity–all of which will undermine NATO.”

            There is a similar divide between France and the UK on many other matters of EU policy.  Among these is how to deal with the current financial crisis, how to promote and enforce environmental policies, whether to sanction Burma for human rights violations, and whether to admit Turkey to EU membership.

            Britain and France have historically never gotten along very well, so it comes as no surprise that they do not see eye to eye where the European Union is concerned.  In both countries the people have made their voices heard and expressed their aversion to the EU becoming the fully-empowered government over their countries.  In England, the political class is largely embracing this Euroskeptic sentiment, promising to remain at a distance from the consolidation of authority, while in France, the leadership seems concerned only with forging ahead and completing the process of total unification, a move likely alienate the UK, to supplant NATO, to secure for France a prominent leadership role in a new world power, and to make the French a major player again on the world stage.

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