French president Francois Hollande has told David Cameron over a pint that Paris does not regard renegotiation of European Union treaties as a “priority”.
In talks at RAF Brize Norton, the Prime Minister made clear that he believes changes to the fundamental EU treaties are necessary as part of the process leading to the in-out referendum on British membership he has promised by the end of 2017.
Differences on Europe overshadowed a UK-France summit which saw agreements to extend defence co-operation, including a £120 million joint feasibility study for a new armed drone and additional British logistical support for France’s military mission in the Central African Republic. Mr Hollande was also confronted with questions from the British press about his reported affair with actress Julie Gayet.
He was asked: “Do you think your private life has made France an international joke, are you still having an affair with Julie Gayet and do you wish she was here?”
The president replied: “I’m afraid I decline to answer.”
Mr Hollande was more expansive on the issue of European reform, insisting that there was no urgent need for treaty change. “France would like the UK to remain within the EU,” Mr Hollande said. “France would like to have a more efficient Europe which can attain the objectives which we consider to be essential – growth, employment, energy and, of course, the capacity to bring in the techniques for tomorrow and to protect our population.
“France would like the eurozone to be better co-ordinated, better integrated and, if there are going to be amendments to the text, we don’t feel that for the time being they are urgent.”
But Mr Cameron said there had already been two changes to treaties since he took office in 2010 and insisted: “Just as the eurozone needs change, so Britain wants change in Europe – change for all of Europe to make Europe more competitive, more flexible, better able to succeed in this global race, but also changes that Britain wants to see.”
Differences over economic policy also surfaced, with Mr Hollande indicating a preference for state intervention to boost growth.
He said: “Now we are in the period of recovery, but we can’t just wait for that recovery to happen – we have to stimulate it, to amplify it.”
Conservatives have been critical of Mr Hollande’s economic policies, including the introduction of a 75 per cent top rate of tax, with party chairman Grant Shapps saying earlier this month that the president had run France “into the sand”.
Mr Cameron “commended” Mr Hollande’s efforts to cut spending and use the proceeds to reduce taxes and unemployment, but added: “Of course we are not going to agree about everything. Francois is a French Socialist, I am a British Conservative – it would be odd if we agreed about everything.”