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PARIS Good news for the Franco-British relationship: the two parties agree on something! The bad news: They agree that their relationship is in terrible shape.
A sign of how serious things are and how difficult it is to fix them: Conversations with French and UK officials suggest they don’t even agree on what kind of relationship they find themselves in, even if they try to play on the chances of an improvement.
The British like to talk about a love-hate relationship between rival siblings but also great friends. The French say sadly that the two countries are spouses in the middle of an acrimonious divorce (Brexit) but keep the hope of a return to civility.
Of course, relations between France and Britain have often been strained over the centuries and there has been a lot of tension in recent decades, both when the UK was a member of the EU and when it wasn’t.
But the strains of Brexit, the very different perspectives of country leaders and the recent wrangling over the coronavirus have all helped to make the current cross-Channel relationship particularly sour.
It’s difficult every day, there is bad faith every day, said a senior French official.
Peter Ricketts, former UK Ambassador to France, said: It’s as bad as I can remember.
Other officials on both sides of the Channel gave a similar assessment.
But conversations with such officials also suggest that each side, despite hordes of people dedicated to understanding the other, suffers from some pretty basic misunderstandings.
British officials believe their French counterparts are spending a lot more time than they think in the UK and trying to punish Britain for Brexit. And many French officials see British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brexit as an unfortunate but short-lived episode to be reversed.
Brexit is a phenomenon of political, cultural and social disengagement, a senior French government official said, noting that the two sides had not held a bilateral summit in recent times.
A British official said the French tend to dismiss a phenomenon they’d rather not think about, especially since it strikes a chord when it comes to its own anti-establishment movements.
The latest bilateral explosion came after Britain suddenly imposed quarantine rules on travelers returning from France to the UK over apparent concerns over the beta variant of the coronavirus. The French government called this decision unjustified discrimination.
Britain is preparing to drop these restrictions this week, officials said. But this measure was only the latest of many measures taken in recent months, seen as provocations on the French side of the Channel.
Since January, the British have threatened to unilaterally extend agreements to export chilled meats to Northern Ireland (aka the “Sausage Wars”). warships in Jersey in response to a dispute over fishing and even accused French President Emmanuel Macron of having a little dick energy.
The British see a lot of provocations on the French side.
They were enraged by Macron’s comments on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, developed in the UK and a mainstay of the UK vaccination campaign. Macron said, without having any data to back up his claim, the jab seemed almost ineffective on seniors. Macron also made an awkward intervention on Northern Ireland’s position in the UK
At the heart of the divide is Brexit. It’s not just about the UK’s exit from the EU, it also reflects a major divide between the worldviews of Macron and Johnson, who seized power with positions diametrically opposed to it. regard to the EU.
If you take President Macron, one of his central pillars is the EU. The fact that the British government is so openly confrontational and does not want a structured relationship with the EU makes bilateral Franco-British relations more difficult, said Georgina Wright, head of the Europe program of the French think tank Institut Montaigne.
The Brexit negotiations, due to the policy, have marred some of the constructive thinking about what the UK and France can do after Brexit.
The depth of the fault line made the return to a constructive relationship between the two countries after Brexit more elusive than expected, including in both governments.
As long as Boris Johnson is in the driver’s seat, it will be difficult for Brexit and the bilateral relationship to move forward, said Sylvie Bermann, former French Ambassador to the UK and author of a book on Brexit and Britain, Goodbye Britannia.
French officials say working with the Johnson administration is particularly difficult as they believe the British leader is constantly questioning Brexit, even when discussing unrelated issues, for domestic political reasons.
For French officials and many other European observers, the G7 summit of the main democracies, hosted by Johnson in Cornwall earlier this year, was a perfect illustration of the problem.
The summit was meant to be the start of Global Britain, Johnson’s vision for the UK’s international role strengthened outside the EU. But much of it has been overshadowed by the Brexit feuds.
French officials noted that a week before the summit, in a preparatory phone conversation with Macron, Johnson had focused more on the Calais migration and sausage deliveries to Northern Ireland, two national priorities than on the key issues the leaders were supposed to address, such as global coronavirus vaccination efforts and relations with China.
But to show how far apart the two sides can be, not just in substance but in prospect, UK officials see the same feud quite differently.
They say Johnson wanted to move from Brexit to the G7, but EU delegations have taken a coordinated approach to block him on the issue in successive bilateral meetings.
Separation of styles
Another factor that keeps the two leaders from being on the same page is their very different personal styles of practicing politics and international relations.
Many officials say the French don’t appreciate Johnson’s habit of making calls with his counterparts with little preparation and an apparent lack of interest in the details of politics.
A British Foreign Office insider said the characterization was accurate, contrasting Johnson’s broad approach to diplomacy with Macron’s insistence on understanding every sentence.
Leaders’ divergent views on the EU also affect their ability to work together bilaterally.
France and other EU officials complain that the UK intends to bypass the European Union and try to work directly with individual member governments. A telltale sign of this approach: the United Kingdom Integrated review Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy mentions France 11 times; the European Union only obtains a few fleeting references.
French officials say this approach is severely restrictive, given that the EU is the world’s largest standard-setting body on issues such as trade and climate.
Notably, the two countries did not organize a joint event last November to mark the 10th anniversary of the Lancaster House Treaties for defense and security cooperation.
The coronavirus pandemic and the last few weeks of Brexit negotiations provided the perfect excuse, but in reality the main reason was that the two sides didn’t have much substance to mark the anniversary.
There were no new plans to discuss at the Lancaster House Treaty commemoration, Bermann said.
Last week, the two sides held a bilateral meeting of their foreign and defense ministers which produced a brief and bland declaration. It was far from the ambition of Lancaster House.
A spokesperson for the UK Foreign Office, Commonwealth and Development, however, issued an optimistic note: As the Foreign Secretary has made clear on several occasions, the UK and France are steadfast close allies. to tackle the common challenges we face, from climate change to vaccine supply.
It is certainly not all gloomy. France and the United Kingdom continue to work closely together within the UN Security Council, of which they are the only permanent European members. They also continued to work closely within the E3 format in the ongoing negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal known as the JCPOA.
In recent days, Paris and London have reached an agreement to do more to curb illegal border crossings in small boats between Calais and the UK
The armies and navies of the two countries are also working closely together, in the fight against ISIS, within NATO missions and in Mali.
And on both sides, while there is consensus that the relationship is going through a very difficult time, some officials are encouraging calm and patience.
“We must be aware not to give in to the temptation to wait for Boris Johnson or for a Brexit turnaround, there is no indication that this will happen,” said the senior French official. “We have to be very patient and show how much we care about the relationship even when it seems like it’s not mutual.”
Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Center think tank, said: There is a very solid foundation of common interests and values. These are expected to become more, not less important in the future, especially as the United States may remain an unpredictable partner for some time.
Some UK officials have offered an even more romantic take, showing a photo tweeted space by French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, noting that France is the closest European shore to the United Kingdom and suggesting that the gap was not that big.
“It seems to me that he has grown a bit since my last mission. However, some people see him in a jetpack! said Pesquet.
Esther Webber contributed reporting from London.
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