Pitt the Younger and Napoleon help themselves in this print by James Gillray. Image: CPA Media Pte Ltd / Alamy

Former French envoy: You can’t go it alone, Britain

As it struggles to re-invent itself, the UK has shown a cavalier disregard towards France. Paris’s former ambassador to London warns that Boris Johnson will eventually have to think again
December 9, 2021

There is more to the recent deterioration of Franco-British relations than you might think from the latest episode of ancestral rivalry. What is at stake is the ability of the two countries to co-operate to make a difference in an increasingly lawless, ruthless world.

First, a few facts. Many in Britain are still convinced that the French position vis à vis Brexit expresses a wish to punish the UK. That interpretation is wrong for two main reasons: in spite of Britain’s attempt to divide and conquer, the 27 EU members have been united throughout the four-plus years of negotiations. France has never been isolated, nor could it have imposed the position alone. The British people voted for Brexit. That is their sovereign decision. They do not deserve to be punished nor should the British government have expected to be rewarded for it.

 Furthermore, Britain’s departure from the EU was not good news for the EU, and France in particular. Economically, the UK is one of the few countries with which France enjoys a comfortable trade surplus: having Britain out of the single market does not help. On foreign and security policy, the two countries are complementary. As permanent members of the UN Security Council, nuclear powers and the only two European countries with significant military capabilities and the political will to use them, France and Britain are natural partners for co-operation.

For over 40 years, Britain had progressively modelled the EU according to its national interests—enlargement, free trade, the common law, use of the English language, the perks resulting from opt-in and opt-out—to the point that the French complained the EU had become a Europe à l’anglaise. So it is a mystery why Britain decided to give up the best of all worlds, and opted for a diminished status where its influence would be automatically reduced.

“Take back control” was an irresistible slogan which helped to win the referendum. It was also an empty one, since that newfound freedom meant Britain had to duplicate, country by country, the trade agreements that it already benefitted from as a member of the EU—while having, in practice, to enforce EU rules without having a say on them.

The irony is that Britain has left the EU at the very moment that the risk of a federal Europe is zero, when power in the EU is increasingly in the hands of national governments, when the so-called special relationship with the US is evanescent and when many European countries’ challenges cannot be met at national level (whether trade, energy, immigration, cyber security, the fight against terrorism or relations with China).

More Europe? Or more France?

At first glance, France’s record regarding Europe is the exact opposite. From the Schuman declaration in 1950 to the courageous pro-European stance of Emmanuel Macron in 2017, through the influence of Jacques Delors in the creation of the single market and François Mitterrand’s decisive role in creating the euro, few countries have done more for the advancement of the European project. Hence the constant suspicion—actually quite justified—that Britain was out to prevent European integration from succeeding. More recently, “America First” policies, the painful discovery of Europe’s vulnerability during the pandemic, the aggressive stance of Russia and the impressive rise of China have fuelled France’s determination to accelerate Europe’s “strategic autonomy” in key areas.

Yet it is fair to say that for successive French governments, “more Europe” has meant “more France thanks to Europe.” It is also a fact that while being a vocal partisan of EU integration, France has often been critical of the European Commission’s competition rules and demands for fiscal restraint. France has also always been eager to carry out an independent foreign policy without being bothered by the majority of EU countries, which are more satisfied with the EU being a big Switzerland rather than a world power.

That ambivalence towards Europe was expressed in the 2005 referendum, when 55 per cent of French voters rejected the draft European constitution. Today, it is also revealing that, after the Polish government opposed the primacy of EU law over national jurisdiction, many French politicians—right and left—have followed suit in the name of recovering sovereignty.

Essentially, the UK benefitted more from EU membership than it admits, has influenced the fate of the EU more than France would have wished, and will most certainly suffer more from Brexit than Brexiteers say.

France, on the other hand, had—and still has—more political will to build a strong, united, independent Europe than many other countries. At the same time, it has always been more reluctant to accept the consequences of supra-nationality on its freedom of action.

Where next?

In the short term, there is no hope of re-establishing a more constructive relationship between the two countries. Boris Johnson hopes to convince the British people that Brexit is a smashing success, taking every opportunity to score points against Europe in general and France in particular. He has damaged the most valuable commodity in international relations: trust. As long as Johnson and his government are trapped in the difficult implementation of the Brexit agreement and still use its complexities for domestic political purposes, no significant changes will occur in Britain’s relationship with Brussels or Paris, at least for many years to come.

But hard realities may require the UK to reconsider its position in the future, for two main reasons. One is America’s vision of Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, the strategic value of Europe for Washington has considerably weakened. That is now irretrievable—and actually logical. It also automatically affects the “special relationship” between the US and Britain, as the British government experienced with the blunt manner in which Biden decided to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan.

Brexit has aggravated the situation, since it was Britain’s membership of the EU that represented a useful tool for American influence in Europe. It is not clear that the recent defence deal on nuclear-powered submarines between the US, Australia and Britain will make a real difference. As former prime minister Theresa May pointed out, it could instead lead to Britain being dragged into a confrontation with China over Taiwan. In any case, it makes the UK even more dependent on Washington’s decisions regarding China without having a real say on them, at the exact time that Britain needs to build a closer relationship with China.

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The other concern is that, for a substantial period of time, Britain will depend on the EU for its external trade (it accounts for around half of UK imports and exports). The much-trumpeted recent trade deal signed with New Zealand represents an infinitesimal portion of the UK’s overall exchanges. The benefits of diverging from EU regulations have yet to be proven. It is also fair to say that without the millions of Covid-19 vaccines exported by the EU to the UK, Johnson could not have celebrated the success of the British vaccination programme. Last but not least, British military capabilities are not as strong as they were two decades ago. France will remain an important partner with whom to co-operate.

France, too, faces important challenges: Germany’s increasing economic strength, the EU’s enlargement and the resurgence of nationalist tendencies in eastern Europe make it harder for France to impose leadership and speak on behalf of all Europeans. In addition, the Franco-German “engine” is running out of steam as Germany, thanks to Merkel’s skill and determination, has managed to defend her country’s interests indefatigably, while paying lip service to European solidarity. The construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia (vehemently opposed by many EU members), Germany’s leniency towards authoritarian leaders in Hungary and Poland, as well as its accommodating policy with China to preserve its economic interests, are a few examples of that trend. It is doubtful that the new three-party coalition in Berlin will fundamentally change this.

In parallel, many of France’s EU partners, while criticising Paris’s “go it alone” policy, are happy to let France take the lead as well as the risks in fighting terrorism in the Sahel; confronting Turkey’s adventurist foreign policy; or being blunt about Nato’s deficiencies. Likewise, while seeing the necessity of France’s insistence on progress in Europe’s strategic autonomy, many are very reluctant to take the steps to turn Europe from a power in the world (which it is already economically) into a world power.

Splendid isolation?

Which brings us back to the French and British roles in the world. As is well known, after the Franco-British Suez debacle in 1956, Britain and France chose diametrically opposed courses. The UK decided to stay as close as possible to the US, in order not to find itself in such an awful situation again. At the same time, it refused to join the European venture. Today, after nearly 50 years in the EU, Britain finds itself out of the group by its own choice and having less weight in Washington. How Britain will re-invent itself beyond the rhetoric of “global Britain” is the big question of the years to come. Granted, it has immense resources to succeed in that endeavour, but splendid isolation from Europe is not a wise option.

In the short term, there is no hope of re-establishing a more constructive relationship between the two countries

France, after Suez, pursued two goals: national independence (the building of a nuclear bomb began in 1957, before de Gaulle’s accession to power) and building up Europe. Today, these basic ingredients are still valid, but they have to be deployed in a much more difficult environment. The way the US and Britain have behaved in the submarines deal with Australia showed disregard for what was supposed to be a close ally. As far as Europe is concerned, the French vision of EU strategic autonomy is sound, and France’s assets are significant. But to have its vision accepted in a more fragmented union, France will have to reform itself more quickly and deeply than has been the case up to now, while showing skilful and patient diplomacy with European partners.

To be sure, the two countries are not in the same situation and have different problems to solve. But they also have so much in common: both are former global powers whose weight has receded but whose diplomatic skills and military capabilities are more than relevant; both have populations and economies of equivalent size; both are struggling to avoid a divorce between the people and the elites; both will have to cope with the same challenges in a world where might makes right; both have a common interest, as Europeans, not to see Europe caught in the crossfire of US-China rivalry. It would be unthinkable that the UK and France would not pool assets and co-operate wherever their interests are complementary. Whether at some point they will at last decide to do so is an open question.

Both countries have learned from Churchill and de Gaulle that nothing is written in advance and that exceptional characters can change the course of history. They must also remember, as Gorbachev warned the East German leader Erich Honecker when the Berlin wall crumbled in 1989, that “history punishes those who come too late.”