Tuesday, 10 May 2016

‘Filer à l’anglaise?’ 
Brexit seen from France.

Just as ‘taking French leave’ was once a familiar expression in England suggesting a tendency to be absent without legitimate reason, typical of Gallic unreliability, so ‘filer à l’anglaise’ is the corresponding French expression that draws on the old stereotype of the English as slippery. 

But as the temperature rises in the debate surrounding Britain’s role in Europe, it’s interesting to note how enduring and hard-wired some perceptions about our neighbours are, and from either side of the Channel. Even before David Cameron returned from Brussels with what he considered were enough concessions for his government to campaign to remain in the EU, questions were asked as to whether Britain could ever be relied on to subscribe wholeheartedly to the European project. 

When Charles de Gaulle repeatedly vetoed British applications to join the EEC, some of his critics saw this largely as a delayed response to the slights he had suffered at the hands of les Anglo-Saxons during the war. But could he have been right about the intrinsic reluctance of the British to have their hands tied except, of course, when this is done by the United States?

One of the most familiar commentators in France today, Chrisophe Barbier, as well-known for his trademark red scarf as for his sometimes trenchant views, has suggested in his editorials in the centre-right L’Express magazine that perhaps the EU should show Britain the door rather than wait for it to leave.
Barbier’s exasperation is not uncommon and stems from the view that Britain has led, first the EEC and then the EU, a merry dance with a ‘will they, won’t they’ routine that undermines the ethical and philosophical commitment its neighbours have to a united Europe.

Looking at the facts, it’s not difficult to understand the frustration expressed by Barbier and others. Barely two years after joining the EEC in 1973, having banged on the door for over a decade, the British government reopened the issue of membership by calling a referendum. Within ten years of this, Mrs Thatcher’s government was threatening to derail the European project financially by asking for Britain’s money back. Even after having approved the Single European Act of 1986 and the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which paved the way for monetary union, such was the hostility to the European project that the government of John Major was largely undone by those he called the Eurosceptic ‘bastards’ on the benches of his majority in parliament. 

Even under a new generation of moderate centre-right politicians, many of whom have known nothing but Britain in Europe, whether it’s the refusal to shoulder part of the cost of bailing out Eurozone economies in difficulty, or share the burden of accommodating the wave of migrants looking for refuge in the EU, Britain has given a pretty convincing impression of being a slippery partner trying to evade its moral, if not its legal obligations.

Currently, while Europe is arguably facing the most serious threats to its future since the end of World War II, the British government has embarked on a referendum that is essentially an internal party political matter, aimed at bringing to an end a 30-year civil war in the Conservative Party, but which has drawn the attention of European leaders away from urgent matters that concern the entire EU. 

In spite of this, the reaction from mainstream politicians has been largely calm and measured. The recent rejection in a referendum, by more than 60% of the Dutch electorate, of the proposal to grant EU associate status to Ukraine has deepened the anxiety that a vote for Brexit could embolden the Eurosceptic sentiment that undoubtedly exists across other EU member states and lead to a kind of domino effect. 

So there has been more than a hint of irony in seeing a socialist administration in France effectively coming to the aid of David Cameron, by taking its cue from him regarding the negative consequences for Britain should the electorate vote for Brexit. During March and early April therefore, President François Hollande has made veiled references to the possible difficulties in accessing the single market, and also in retaining the pre-eminence of London as Europe’s leading financial market, should Britain quit the EU.  

The economics minister, Emmanuel Macron, has been less guarded and warned unequivocally that if the Britain leaves, potential migrants to Britain would no longer stop at Calais because the frontier would have moved to Dover. Speaking specifically as economic minister, Macron even invited bankers to move to Paris should London find itself outside of the EU. 

Some parts of the media have sensed, however, that the issue will be decided by sentiment rather than reason. So on 12April the daily Le Parisien highlighted a campaign started by Katrin Lock, a young German woman living in London, to persuade the British that they are loved, really, by their neighbours in the EU.  She and fellow expats are taking selfies of themselves kissing their British friends and posting them on line with the hashtags #hugabrit and #pleasedontgouk.  

Prof Gino Raymond,

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