11 February 2016

The blameless game: why France still won’t take Brexit seriously


If the upcoming EU summit intended to answer the English Question should turn ugly, at least we all know where to look to find the villain of the piece.

Or do we?

It won’t be Angela Merkel. That’s for sure. In the Great Debate over Britain’s future in Europe, Mutti is looking out for Germany. If she wasn’t, we would have to ask ourselves how she ever got to be Chancellor in the first place. But it’s clear she hasn’t got it in for Britain. If anything, she sees the UK as a voice of sanity in an increasingly uncertain world. She simply wishes to restore stability to a Europe overwhelmed by angst so that that her country can get on with what it is good at – making things that people want and enjoying a beer after work.

Nor could we plausibly point the finger at Jean-Claude Juncker. Yes, the President of the European Commission, whose country is slightly smaller than Staffordshire, can be a pain in the neck, or whichever part of the human body you may find more appropriate. But, in spite of the fact that David Cameron did his utmost to prevent him from getting the top job, the former Luxembourg PM has remained good-humoured and looks to have done his best to help cobble together a workable solution. So it won’t be his fault.

Who, then? Not Donald Tusk, the former Prime Minister of Poland, presently head of the European Council. Tusk – or Toosk as the BBC now calls him – was always bound to take into account the possible repercussions on Polish migrants of changes in UK benefit laws. But, so far as we know, he is ready to push for the EU as a whole to back the Cameron reforms. Indeed, the proposed package stands in his name.

Ought we then to turn our ire on the leaders of Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary and the Baltic states? Perhaps, but only up to a point. While seeking reverse tweaks on the benefits issue, the East Bloc seems reconciled to giving Britain most of what it wants for the prize of steadying an organisation that more than anything else these days resembles one of those cargo ships that has listed all the way to one side and needs a fleet of tugs to pull it upright. True, there may be trouble ahead from the oddballs of the Law and Justice Party, who currently form the Government in Warsaw, but even they, we are told, have no wish to see the ship of states go down.

As for Spain, still struggling to form a government after December’s inconclusive elections, whoever turns up to represent Madrid at the summit will be concerned mainly that France, under the Cameron rules, will not seek to get Spanish workers on the cheap. Spain has enough problems of its own and grandstanding in the midst of political stasis at home is unlikely to be high on its agenda. Ditto Portugal; ditto Greece. But let us not forget Matteo Renzi, the volatile, permanently outraged Italian premier. Renzi is beside himself with fury over the migrant crisis – and who can blame him? But he is also on record as saying that the EU without Britain is “impossible,” which hardly suggest he is about to give Cameron a kicking.

With luck, then, and with the insertion of a couple of adroitly placed sets of square brackets, the new Act of Settlement could be home and dry.

Except, alas, for the pesky French. Isn’t that what we’re told?

Ungrateful wretches!

Two months ago, when MPs in Westminster were debating whether or not to add our three ha’pence-worth to the aerial Armada bombing Syria, we were told that, following November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, we were honour-bound to come to France’s aid. In the end, after much soul-searching, we did so. The result? Apart from a perfunctory phonecall from the Elysée to Downing Street, our act of self-sacrifice was ignored. It barely registered. French politicians did not line up to thank les Rosbifs for rallying to their side; the French media barely mentioned it. As far as our gallant allies were concerned, it was a non-event (which, arguably, it has proved).

Now here we are, once more poised, or posturing, at the door of the European Union, one foot on the icy outside step, the other tapping nervously as we listen to our partners imploring us to shut the bloody door and not let the cold in. One voice, however, is not part of the chorus. Had it been otherwise, we would have been shocked and, I would venture to say, disappointed.

François Hollande, like all of his predecessors, including Nicolas Sarkozy, knows what is expected of him as President of France. His job is to make Britain look small. A garden gnome version of De Gaulle, he insists that he has gone as far as he can to appease the Island Race and will be pushed no further.

“We want the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union,” he told journalists after meeting with his ministerial team.”But at the European Council there can be no new adjustments or new negotiations. We have reached a point that should give British people the reassurances needed while respecting European principles.”

If, in other words, Cameron tries to squeeze out one final, wafer-thin concession – say by wresting control of the emergency brake on benefits back from the EU as a whole – Hollande could do a mini-me version of Le Grand Charles and scupper the deal, at which point a crisis would arise from which the only exit could be Brexit.

But we should got get over-excited. Not yet at any rate. For the truth is that what is presented in the UK as a do-or-die moment for Europe, is seen in France as merely act five, six or seven of a long-running bedroom farce on which the curtain never quite comes down, leaving the players on stage to pull their trousers back on while the audience fidgets or else disappears in the direction of the crush bar.

On France’s reading of the play, Britain as the cheating husband, played by Hugh Grant, is not seriously calling for a divorce from Europe, which could result in a costly visit to the cleaners and a decade or more in a rented flat. Instead, as if seeking the approval of Boris Johnson, the UK is pushing for an open marriage in which the partners by and large lead separate lives. Though the joint account would be closed, Britain would continue to pay Europe a generous allowance and ensure that the children are provided for. As a matter of form, it would continue to turn up at weddings, christenings and funerals. But it would have no intention of settling down or sleeping alone.

France can live with this, provided only that the lie is strictly adhered to and that the sham marriage is acknowledged in public to be the real thing. Hollande, no slouch when it comes to marital misadventure, will most likely play his part, even if the words stick in his throat.

Could something altogether unexpected happen that throws this cosy mise en scene into chaos? Of course. One should always expect the unexpected, and France or the East Bloc could yet, as the Irish say, take a fit of the head-staggers. It could even happen that the EU as a whole decides it has had enough of Britain and risks everything, including the EU’s own future, by making Cameron an offer he is bound to refuse. The greater likelihood, however, is that Her Majesty’s Government will once more express its commitment to Europe by distancing itself from the reality while its partners agree to soldier on, either to live the dream or else to test the project to destruction. Either way, what happens after that will be a matter for the British electorate. Fascinating, wouldn’t you say? Mesdames, messieurs, faites vos jeux!

Walter Ellis a writer based in France.