x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Cameron's veto on EU treaty revives Anglo-French animosity

The fierce row between Britain and France over ways of solving Europe's debt crisis has revived the long-held and deep-seated animosity that lurks beneath the surface of their relationship.

David Cameron, the British premier, right, has widened the diplomatic gulf with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, by vetoing a new European Union treaty to tackle the Euro debt crisis.
David Cameron, the British premier, right, has widened the diplomatic gulf with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, by vetoing a new European Union treaty to tackle the Euro debt crisis.

The fierce row between Britain and France over ways of solving Europe's debt crisis has revived the long-held and deep-seated animosity that lurks beneath the surface of their relationship.

Although only 34 kilometres separate the countries at the narrowest point of the English Channel, a wide diplomatic gulf has been opened by Britain's veto on a Franco-German plan for a revised European Union treaty to centralise fiscal control.

The dispute threatens a new period of sullen frostiness in what the former French president Jacques Chirac once called the turbulent love affair between fractious neighbours.

Mr Chirac's successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, and British prime minister, David Cameron, represent nations with plenty of common interest.

They led the world in supporting the Libyan rebellion against Col Muammar Qaddafi. A 2010 defence treaty created far-reaching cooperation on nuclear weapons research, contingency military capabilities and aircraft development.

The French and British admire one another's cultures. French people live and work in the UK in such numbers that London has been described as France's fifth largest city. The British have reciprocated by buying up so many second or main homes in France that the south-western department of Dordogne is known as Dordogneshire.

But there is invariably an undercurrent of tension and this has been demonstrated yet again in reaction to Mr Cameron's refusal to sign up to a treaty with the other 26 EU members. Britain feared its financial sector would suffer disproportionately from transaction taxes and preferred to leave the rest of the 26 to press ahead with an '"accord`'.

When Mr Sarkozy talked about the search for a unified approach foundering because of the objections of "our British friends", friendship appeared the last thing on his mind.

And as the Eurosceptic right-wing of Mr Cameron's Conservative party rejoiced at having forced their leader to make a stand in Brussels, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, president of the French financial regulatory body portrayed them as "the dumbest in the world, subservient not to national interests but financial ones".

Saving the euro is hardly the first issue of recent times to remind Britain and France of a history that includes the Hundred Years' War, which actually lasted for 136 years between the 14th and 15th centuries.

Gen Charles de Gaulle, when French president, used the single word "Non" to block British membership of the common market, a forerunner of the EU. In the 1980s, French farmers protesting about cheap meat imports hijacked British lorries and burnt their loads of lamb. This in turn led to the mass-circulation British tabloid, The Sun, running a "hop off you frogs" campaign.

In another cross-Channel dispute, the same newspaper depicted Mr Chirac, when president, as a worm. While the insult was somewhat lost in translation, copies of a special edition dominated by the image were handed out to passers-by in the Champs-Elysées.

Mr Chirac was known for turning the tables. The left-of-centre newspaper Liberation once quoted him as remarking, off the cuff, during a meeting with German and Russian heads of state: "One cannot trust people (the English) whose cuisine is so bad … the only thing they have ever given European agriculture is mad cow disease."

Before an England v France rugby international in February, Marc Lievremont, the French team's coach, said of the English: "We don't like them and it's better to say so than to be hypocritical. We have a lot of trouble with English people. We respect them -- in my case, at least, I respect them -- but you couldn't say we have the slightest thing in common with them.

"We appreciate our Italian cousins, with whom we share the same quality of life. We appreciate the Celts and their conviviality, and among all those nations we have one thing on common. We don't like English people."

In the build-up to the reportedly bruising EU summit, Mr Sarkozy tried to slap down the British premier by saying he had "missed a good opportunity to shut up".

It strikes a familiar posturing note. But with countries facing tough times and looking for scapegoats, some observers sense a sinister new mood in Europe.

Paul Krugman, a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University, argued in his New York Times column that the euro crisis was "killing the European dream", creating bitter acrimony - and making extreme remedies more attractive - instead of binding nations together.

"I am not being alarmist," he wrote. "On the political, as on the economic front, it's important not to fall into the 'not as bad as' trap. High unemployment isn't OK just because it hasn't hit 1933 levels; ominous political trends shouldn't be dismissed just because there's no Hitler in sight."

Both France and the UK have certainly experienced rising electoral support for the far right.

But not everyone sees the latest Anglo-French spat as much more than a political hiccup.

"We have our differences but I can honestly tell you it's not something people are talking about in the bistro," said José-Alain Fralon, the Algeria-born French writer whose book Au Secours, les Anglais nous Envahissent! (Help, the English are invading) paints a light-hearted picture of French areas overrun by the British. "They're more likely to complain about the Germans being stronger, having a better economy and wanting to run everything."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae