BRUSSELS, Oct. 11 (UPI) -- Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, Britain was the undisputed leader of the European Union's 'awkward squad.' Under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, London blocked EU laws, resisted greater integration and generally irritated its continental partners.
Now the EU has a new bad boy on the block, according to French daily Le Monde.
In an unusually scathing editorial Wednesday, the left-leaning daily opined: "The France of Jacques Chirac and Jean-Pierre Raffarin has become the black sheep of Europe."
The op-ed added that Paris' "selfish national policy is contrary to France's 50-year-long pro-European tradition."
This is something of an exaggeration -- after all it was General de Gaulle who vetoed British entry into the then European Economic Community throughout much of the 1960s and successive French governments that have done their utmost to hinder opening up markets within the EU.
However, there is little doubt that France has become noticeably cooler to Brussels since President Chirac's re-election in May and the subsequent victory of right-wing parties in June's parliamentary election.
The new government has rejected outright the European Commission's tame attempts to overhaul the EU's bloated Common Agricultural Policy, arguing the reforms would harm the interests of the tiny percent of the French population who still till the land.
It has also threatened to block commission proposals aimed at protecting Europe's dwindling fish-stocks, claiming the plans would ruin its small fishing fleet.
But what really sparked the ire of editorialists -- and France's EU partners -- was the government's decision late Monday night to tear up the terms of the growth and stability pact. The misnamed pact is meant to impose strict budgetary rules on the eurozone's 12 members.
With budget deficits ballooning in several EU countries -- including Germany and Italy -- finance ministers met in Luxemburg Monday to attempt to restore confidence in the fledgling currency's fiscal rulebook.
Eleven of the 12 members agreed to cut their deficits by 0.5 percent next year as a first step toward reaching a balanced budget.
However, French Finance Minister Francis Mer said Paris had no intention of meeting the target.
"We decided that there are other priorities in France, such as boosting economic growth and raising military spending," he told reporters.
Mer's colleagues were, naturally, furious. Dutch Finance Minister Hans Hoogervorst said: "This is very serious and there will be consequences," while his Austrian counterpart Karl-Heinz Grasser described the move as "French provocation."
Brussels-based diplomats told United Press International that France's antipathy toward the stability pact and its opposition to farm and fisheries reform was nothing new. However, they expressed concern at the stridency with which the new center-right government is making its position known.
In the past, Paris could rely on Berlin for support on most major issues. But these days the Franco-German alliance that has spearheaded EU integration for the last 50 years is effectively dead due to a series of policy and personality clashes between Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
In the short term, French opposition to farm and fisheries reform may kill off the commission's proposals. But, as Britain discovered in the 1980s and 1990s, developing a reputation for saying "non" is counterproductive in a consensus-driven system like the EU.