WHEN John Major's spokesman said the new British Prime minister and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl got onto ``a first-name basis very early on'' in their first t^ete-`a-t^ete, veteran journalists broke into laughter. Frosty relations between Mr. Kohl and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were never any secret. But the rapport between Kohl and Mr. Major, confirmed by German government officials, was the rule for the new prime minister's debut this weekend among his European Community colleagues.
French presidential spokesman Hubert V'edrine reported no such familiar first-name banter between Major and the much more formal Fran,cois Mitterrand. But he noted that ``good working relations do not depend on that.'' Saying a ``grand friendliness'' developed quickly between the two leaders in their bilateral meeting, Mr. V'edrine added there were at least two reasons why the French and British leaders should feel a special closeness: They are the only two European members of the United Nations Security Council and both are the only EC countries with troops in the Gulf.
During his two days in Rome, Major showed that it was Britain's tone but not its position on issues of substance, that had changed with his succession to Mrs. Thatcher. Britain, he said, remains opposed to a single European currency and to granting any legislative powers to the European Parliament. But in reviewing the wide-ranging list of suggestions on political reform the leaders have invited the Community to consider, Major said it was an acceptable ``menu.'' That typically conciliatory statement suggested none of Thatcher's categorical refusals.
The warm welcome with which his colleagues greeted Major reflects both a genuine desire for less contentious relations and a recognition that Britain must be on board if the Community is to move forward. Elisabeth Guigou, France's European affairs minister, even suggested a deliberate courting of Major was taking place, noting that ``we have to finish the [constitutional reform] conferences with 12 countries signed on, so it's in our interest to listen to their proposals.''
Only EC Commission President Jacques Delors publicly sounded a negative note. Of Major he said, ``I am distrustful and I have good reason to be so.'' He referred to his feeling of betrayal over how Major, while Britain's finance minister, handled Delors's original openness to an alternative plan for EC monetary union proposed by Major.