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sovereignty

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Frangleterre

18 January 2007

Frangleterre? Or Brance?

By Gwynne Dyer

“The Almighty in His infinite wisdom did not see fit to create Frenchmen in the image of Englishmen,” Winston Churchill told the British House of Commons in 1942 — but only two years before, he had publicly offered to merge France and Britain into a single country. And now it turns out that the same offer was made again, this time by France to Britain, in 1956. A quite serious offer, by the French prime minister of the time, that would have created a new country that would by now number 125 million people and have the world’s third-biggest economy.

Churchill’s 1940 offer to merge the entire British and French empires was a counsel of despair, issued when France was on the verge of surrendering to Germany and the British prime minister was trying to keep her (or at least her navy and her overseas possessions) in the war. Most French leaders rightly saw it as a British grab for French resources with which to carry on the war, and the proposal quickly died. 1956 was different.

British prime minister Anthony Eden was astonished when his French counterpart, Guy Mollet, showed up in London in September, 1956 and secretly proposed the unification of the two countries. Mollet was quite serious, however, even saying that France would have no problem in accepting the young Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state.

It runs counter to everything that other people believe about the nature of French identity, and indeed what the French believe about their own national character. Yet it really did happen. The British documents describing the discussion were declassified twenty years ago, but the throng of researchers who pile into the archives each January as another year’s government documents are released under the thirty-year rule somehow missed them.

The documents confirming the offer were only discovered last month by a British Broadcasting Corporation television producer who was trolling through the National Archives on a fishing expedition for new documentary topics. (They’re running out of ideas at the BBC.)

Eden rejected Mollet’s suggestion for a full union of the two countries, but two weeks later he recommended “immediate consideration” of the French prime minister’s fall-back proposal that France join the British Commonwealth, the new club for all the independent bits of the rapidly shrinking empire. France would accept the Queen as head of the Commonwealth, and also wanted “a common (British-French) citizenship arrangement on the Irish basis.” (After Irish independence in 1921, British and Irish citizens retained the right to live and work in each other’s countries.)

That didn’t happen either, because Eden was soon afterwards swept out of office when the joint attack on Egypt that Britain and France were plotting with Israel went badly wrong during the Suez crisis. Mollet only lasted in office until halfway through the following year, but by then France had joined the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union, instead. And when Britain finally applied to join the EEC in 1963, another French leader, Charles De Gaulle, vetoed its entry.

It was a weird episode, and it only came about because France was in even worse shape than Britain in 1956, after the disasters of the previous fifteen years: military defeat, four years of German occupation, and ten years of economic and political chaos. Britain in 1956 was only starting to understand how greatly its power had diminished, because it had not suffered defeat and occupation during the Second World War, so Eden rejected union with what he saw as a weaker and supplicant France. Seven years later the shoe was on the other foot, and De Gaulle rejected even a looser link with Britain.

But it could have happened, had the timing been right. Great powers in decline often consider radical moves to shore up their status in the world, and sovereignty is not indivisible. After all, twenty-seven European countries, including both Britain and France, now share large amounts of their sovereignty within the admittedly looser structures of the European Union.

In France, the almost universal media response to the revelations about 1956 has been to find some historian who would pour cold water on the Mollet proposal, insisting that it was not seriously meant, for the story shows France in a rather humiliating light. The British media, by contrast, just had fun with it.

The “Guardian” tracked down Denis MacShane, former minister of state for Europe in the Blair government, who obligingly opined that “France and England are like an old married couple who often think of killing each other, but would never dream of divorcing.” And the “Independent” indulged in dystopian fantasies about what fifty years of union would have done to the two countries.

“France might have had our public transport and health systems; we might have had the ramshackle French university system,” speculated John Lichfield, the Independent’s Paris correspondent. “We might have had French rates of unemployment. They might have had the London Tube instead of the Metro. We both might have ended up with French TV, British hospital waiting lists, the French police…British school dinners, French plumbers and Scottish joie de vivre.”

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“It runs…them”; and”But it…Union”)

Shadow on the Euro

31 July 2005

Shadow on the Euro

By Gwynne Dyer

How fast the tide turns. Back in February, a report that the South
Korean central bank was planning to keep a bigger share of its foreign
currency holdings in euros and a smaller portion in US dollars set off
speculation that the euro would soon overtake the dollar as the world’s
preferred reserve currency. Five months later, the speculation is about how
long the euro will survive.

Last Thursday, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi publicly
blamed the euro for all of the Italian economy’s ills: recession, high
prices, joblessness, the lot. “Italy is not a disaster” he said, “but
Prodi’s euro has ripped us all off.” (Romano Prodi, who defeated
Berlusconi in 1996 and brought Italy into the euro, will be the
opposition’s candidate for prime minister again in next year’s elections.)

Italy’s current economic miseries date approximately from the time
when the euro replaced the lira. Since that was also about the time when
Berlusconi took over the management of the economy, it makes good political
sense for him to blame all those problems on “Prodi’s euro.” last month,
another senior minister in his coalition government, Roberto Maroni of the
Northern League, even called for a referendum on pulling Italy out of the
euro and bringing back the lira. But it’s not just Italians who dislike
the euro.

The French and Dutch “no” votes on the new European constitution in
May and June have cast a shadow over the whole European project. Although
the referendums were not about the euro, French and especially Dutch voters
listed the new currency as one of their major grievances against Brussels.
A recent poll showed that 56 percent of German voters want the mark back.
Could the euro really just fall apart?

International currency arrangements have a habit of falling apart
whenever the going gets rough. The last time it happened was 1972, when
the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, in which each major
Western currency had a predictable value in every other currency, collapsed
under the inflationary pressures caused by the Vietnam war and the first
oil-price shock. That collapse, after much turmoil, led to the floating
exchange rate regime that has lasted until today.

The euro, which replaces the old francs, marks, guilders, pesetas,
escudos, drachmas, and liras of the European Union, is not yet five years
old. It depends, as all currencies do, on people believing that it will
hold its value over the long run. That credibility is now in danger.

What makes the euro so vulnerable is the fact that there is no
government behind it. There are twelve governments behind it, to be sure,
but they have not submitted themselves irrevocably to a single
decision-making authority. If a major political or financial crisis hits,
there is always the chance that one or more of those governments will
decide the joint currency is no longer in its interest.

The euro is a one-size-fits-all straitjacket that does not serve
all the countries that have adopted it equally well even in non-crisis
times. For example, it imposes the same interest rate on Germany (which
needs a lower rate to help it escape from a long economic downturn) and on
Spain (which should be raising the interest rate to cool the inflation
caused by its booming economic growth). Only a large range of benefits from
this single currency would compensate for its obvious costs, and most
eurozone citizens don’t see those benefits.

All large areas that use a single currency suffer from the same
problem to some extent. Maine and California, for example, would generally
do better economically with different interest rates, whereas the US dollar
imposes a single interest rate nationwide. Being shackled to the same
interest rate is part of the price they pay for being parts of the same big
country (and they pay it willingly because they also benefit from belonging
to a larger whole). But at least, in a crisis, there is a single US
government that sets policy for all fifty states.

No single government sets policy for all twelve countries that use
the euro. The European Central Bank has day-to-day responsibility for
running the currency, but the separate national governments of the EU
retain their sovereignty and in a crisis could override the ECB. That
means the euro could fall apart in theory. Is it likely to do so in
practice?

Not this time around. Italian politicians may play with the idea
of bringing the lira back to distract an angry electorate, but it would be
“economic suicide,” as ECB chief economist Otmar Issing put it, for Italy
alone to abandon the euro. The real danger for the euro will come much
later, perhaps in the next recession but one, around 2015-18.

By then 22 countries with wildly diverse economies will be using
the euro, for all the recent entrants to the EU also plan to adopt the
currency. More importantly, by then other big EU countries besides Italy
may also have concluded that the euro does not serve their purposes.

European governments rushed into the euro in the 1990s, knowing
full well that the political foundations for a single currency did not yet
exist, as an emergency response to the collapse of the Soviet empire and
the reunification of Germany. They intended closer political integration
to follow, but that project has now stalled. If it is not re-started, then
sooner or later (but probably later) the euro is doomed.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9.
(“International…today”; and “All…states”)
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles
are published in 45 countries.

The Detritus of Empire

31 October 2002

The Detritus of Empire

By Gwynne Dyer

Morocco is very reasonable about the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla which Spain has controlled for over four centuries (although it says it would like them back eventually). France never quibbles about the Channel Islands, which have been under English control for almost a thousand years, although they are just off the French coast. Canada raises no claim to the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland: for Ottawa, the Treaty of Paris in 1763 settled that question once and for all.

So why is Madrid so obsessed about getting back the British enclave of Gibraltar, a barren peninsula on Spain’s southern coast that was ceded to Britain in perpetuity by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713? And why is the British Foreign Office determined to push the 30,000 residents of Gibraltar, whose only wish is to remain British, into a ‘shared sovereignty’ arrangement with Spain?

The last time Gibraltarians were asked to vote on a closer relationship with Spain, in 1967, over 12,000 voted ‘no’ and only 44 voted ‘yes’, so they are understandably unhappy about the current Anglo-Spanish talks on the Rock. Excluded from the negotiations because he wanted the right of veto, the elected chief minister of Gibraltar, Peter Caruana, has called a referendum for 7 November. The question is: “Do you agree that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar?” The answer will again be an overwhelming ‘no’.

Officially, that will make no difference, for the British government says it will not recognise any referendum that it does not call and run itself. Caruana’s referendum is an attempt to sabotage the talks by demonstrating the total opposition of Gibraltarians to the whole idea of shared sovereignty, whose result, he says, would be “to curtail our rights, to legitimise the Spanish sovereignty claim and, in effect, to say to us ‘sooner or later you are going to have to be Spanish — if you don’t want it to be now it’s up to you to choose the timing in the future’.”

It is much the same deal that the British government was preparing to impose on the people of the Falkland Islands before the Argentine generals jumped the gun with their 1982 invasion, and thereby forced a reluctant British government to accept continuing responsibility for the welfare and defence of the Falklanders into the 21st century. Britain has been off-loading its former imperial possessions with a cynical disregard for the views of the local inhabitants for decades. But the Gibraltarians know a bit about public relations, and they are fighting back.

Spain today is a prosperous and fully democratic country that has left the era of civil wars and dictatorship far behind, and Spanish citizenship has exactly the same value as British citizenship within the European Union. Britain no longer runs an empire, so Gibraltar has no strategic value for London. A deal on shared sovereignty would end the petty harassment that Spanish governments have inflicted on Gibraltar’s residents since the dictator Franco first made it a major nationalist issue, and might even lead to increased prosperity for Gibraltar in the long run.

In other words, there is nothing vital at stake in the deal being cooked up by Britain and Spain. The Gibraltarians, for purely sentimental reasons, want to remain British, but why should the views of a mere 30,000 people take precedence over the desire of the British and Spanish governments to tidy up their relationship in these post-modern, globalised times? There is no rational reason, and yet it feels all wrong.

It feels wrong because the Spanish really are trying to have it both ways. They insist on the return of a rocky peninsula on their south coast that Britain acquired by treaty almost 300 years ago, but they flatly refuse to discuss the return of two almost identical enclaves on the north coast of Morocco that Spain acquired by treaty over 400 years ago. (Morocco, of course, says that if Spain gets Gibraltar, it wants Ceuta and Melilla back at the same time.)

But it also feels wrong because the world is too tidy already. Anybody who likes their reality spiced up with a few historical anomalies can only be pleased that there are still Dutch-speaking islands in the Caribbean, French-speaking islands in the Indian Ocean, English-speaking islands off Argentina, and a Portuguese-speaking country (much battered, but finally freed from a quarter-century of brutal occupation) on the eastern half of the island of Timor.

True, these are all remnants of the European empires that once conquered most of the planet. It would be fairer if there were also Arabic-speaking enclaves on the coast of India, Japanese-speaking islands off the coast of California, and a few Bengali-speaking outposts in the Irish Sea. But the unfairness of history is no argument for crushing diversity in the present.

Will the British Foreign Office succeed in selling out Gibraltar in order to placate a Spanish government that is a useful ally in the ongoing battles over the future shape of the European Union? Probably not, for its hands are tied by the promises of previous governments to consult the people of Gibraltar first. It may refuse to recognise the validity of Gibraltar’s referendum, but the rest of the world will notice, and so will the British public.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“It is much…back” and “True…present”)