Kanumera Creiche discusses the long and challenging relationship between the UK and France.
As a French girl studying in England, let’s just say I have endured my lot of “jokes” about my nationality: the French rugby team, the white flag, the “voulez-vous coucher avez moi ce soir?”, and more. So, when this little Italian girl asked me why I was supporting Italy during the Euro Final, I answered “French and English people just love hating each other”. And this unfortunately has never been truer than today.
If you had not noticed, diplomatically speaking, the tensions are running high between France and the United Kingdom, and these do not seem to deescalate. Various topics seem to get in the way of a peaceful and collaborative relationship between the two countries: immigration, fishing licences, Aukus, Brexit, just to name a few. Not only has this led representatives of both countries to enter a childish competition on who is going to have the best comeback, but also led France to threaten the UK with sanctions if its grievances were not met, including banning British fishing vessels in French ports.
But, how did we get it here? And is there a way out? I argue that both countries are a lot more similar than we assume them to be, but that their clashing foreign policy strategies make them the perfect frenemies.
To explain this love-hate relationship between France and the United Kingdom I could go back as far as the One Hundred Years war. I will not. It would require from me a lot more work, and I would not do honor to either country’s history. But I can go back to Brexit and how this has led France and the UK into a spiral of tensions, misunderstandings and deceptions.
Both countries are a lot more similar than we assume them to be, but that their clashing foreign policy strategies make them the perfect frenemies.
On the French side of the Channel, Brexit was felt as a messy divorce. The European Union, and hence France, felt like the abandoned housewife. The UK was the cheating husband and the US the hot secretary. As the bitter cheated-on Europeans that we were, we hoped that Brexit would bring the UK chaos and that the affair with the secretary would turn to ashes. It did not. Hence, the negotiations over Brexit were tense, none of the parties wanted to give in and long-term tensions were born. Those unhealed scars are breaking open today.
One of the tensest moments between France and the United Kingdom lies in one of the post-Brexit negotiation agreements. The UK had agreed to let French fishing ships in its waters. Yet, the British government have granted only half of the fishing licenses promised due to bureaucratic requirements that some French ships cannot meet. After repeating demands, the exasperated French executive issued an ultimatum: if the British government did not issue the rest of the fishing licences as agreed in the negotiations, France would implement economic sanctions. These include the ban of British fishing vessels in some French ports, the reinforcements of customs and hygiene controls, routine security checks on British vessels, and the reinforcement of controls on lorries to and from the UK. France is also threatening to impose additional measures on electricity importation regarding the mainland but more specifically targeting Jersey and Guernsey in danger of seeing 95% of their electricity cut off. The British executive has described the French position as “disappointing” and “disproportionate” and has summoned the French ambassador. In retaliation, Environment Secretary George Eustice said that the British government could impose sanctions on France as well. Is an economic war at our doorsteps?
But France’s aggressive position was not born over 250 missing fishing licences. Tensions between both countries takes place in the context of post-negotiation over the Brexit deal where Boris Johnson seems to turn his back on the deal he signed in January 2020. The Irish border is one of the negotiation points he cannot seem to come to terms with, and has exasperated even more of the European community.
Is an economic war at our doorsteps?
Furthermore, the Aukus deal, also known as the submarines affairs, has irritated France’s diplomatic corps to a point where the latter does not have any leniency left. When the Australian government suddenly canceled on the command of 12 French submarines- “the contract of the century”- in favor of the AUKUS alliance (Australia, United Kingdom, United States), France felt “stabbed-in-the-back” by its own allies, leading to some strong words on both sides of the Channel.
These escalating tensions also take place in particular domestic contexts. The French presidential election will proceed in April 2022, and even though it is not official yet, President Macron is expected to run for office for a second term. In a presidential campaign where the extreme-right gathers more people every year, President Macron wants to act as a strong leader, leading him to take a harsh foreign policy position. But the same can be said on the British side. After a terrible report on his handling of the Covid pandemic, a petrol and food shortage, tension on the Irish border… exiting the EU does not seem to go as well as expected. Boris Johnson’s political image is in dire need to appear strong: a Prime Minister resisting EU’s effort to implement the deal he no longer agrees to.
But when taking a step back from all of the current tensions, we can see that France and the UK look more similar than they may realise, and seeing these evil twins tear each other apart is quite painful. Both ex-imperial countries and both fed on a strong feeling of exceptionalism, they have lost international prestige over the decades through decolonization wars, then an economic crisis, and now challenging rising powers. They share the same anxiety of being relegated to second-class countries, a position where their voice no longer matters. But even though their anxiety may be similar, their strategies to remain on the front stage differ and this is where the primary tension lie. The UK, through Brexit, is re-attaching itself to the US hoping that it would be able to project more power in an English-speaking alliance, led by the United States. On the other hand, France is hoping to create a strong and independent European alliance that would be an alternative to the American, Russian or Chinese superpowers. Brexit has decreased the chances of seeing this strong European foreign policy alliance to occur, and hence materializing Churchill’s exploding words to General de Gaulle: if Britain were ever forced to choose between Europe and the open seas, it would always choose the latter.
Several meetings are planned between the two countries in the several days, leaving us hoping for a de-escalation of the disagreement. President Macron has already decided to delay the implementation of the economic sanctions to “give a chance” to the talks. But even though the tangible problems may be fixed in the weeks to come, the underlying tensions will not disappear anytime soon. The Brexit has ended the cooperation between the two countries. Hence, are these two prestige-seeking countries still allies, or have they become rivals?