THE pot calling the kettle black. The French pot-au-feu simmering with a rich mix of hurt pride and arrogance; the British kettle whistling a happy tune as the water boils for the cup that cheers. The spectacle of Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair exchanging insults across the Channel is not an edifying one and it seems that next week's EU summit in Brussels is unlikely to improve matters. Yet the issue at the heart of their quarrel is a vitally important one and deserves a reasoned debate. France says: when Margaret Thatcher negotiated the EU budget rebate in 1984 Britain's economy was less successful than France's or Germany's but now that things have changed the rebate is no longer justified. Britain says: yes, but the rebate was designed principally to compensate the UK for the much larger sums France still gets from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); remember, the CAP was started before Britain joined the EEC. France replies: be that as it may, there are now 15 new members of the EU needing financial assistance but Britain is still taking a rebate it no longer needs. Britain replies: perhaps, but Britain still contributes more than twice as much overall to the EU budget as France does; if it lost the rebate it would be paying fifteen times as much. (What France has not yet noticed and Britain hasn't mentioned is that under present arangements the value of Britain's rebate will double over the next five years.)
It is highly desirable that the macho posturing between the Elysee Palace and No 10 Downing Street should come to an end and the needs of other less prosperous members of the EU considered. The CAP is a bloated monstrosity and the UK rebate is hard to justify for the indefinite future; there is room there for negotiation. Meanwhile Spain has quietly accepted that it is going to get less from the EU in future, setting an example in solidarity which Britain and France would do well to follow.