When last month’s “Aukus” defence deal between Canberra, London and Washington sank France’s plans to sell submarines to Australia and enraged the French, UK prime minister Boris Johnson insisted it was nothing for Paris to worry about. “Our love of France is ineradicable,” he said.
Even before Aukus, however, the Franco-British relationship was plumbing new depths, largely because of what the French see as the UK’s failure to implement key parts of the Brexit deal.
“We remain neighbours, partners and very close allies and have a common interest in ensuring this bilateral relationship is strong and durable, and even becomes deeper in matters of defence and security,” Clément Beaune, France’s Europe minister, told the Financial Times.
“But, as they say, it takes two to tango. And now I’m afraid that all the signals being sent by the UK are negative.”
Beaune, a confidant of President Emmanuel Macron, went on to threaten “retaliatory measures” against the UK over what the French say is deliberate, politically motivated foot-dragging by the UK in the granting of fishing licences for small French boats in British waters as agreed in the Brexit accord.
Although the European Commission and other EU members have been careful to avoid backing French calls for sanctions over what is at the moment mainly a bilateral dispute over fish, Beaune and other ministers have suggested they may cut off electricity supply from France to Jersey and even Britain. The industry estimates France provides about 2.5 per cent of Britain’s annual supply.
“We’re looking at all options, French and European,” said Beaune. “Everything is possible. It could be energy, it could be other products and other trade measures. It could of course be fisheries products themselves.”
Another fight over the post-Brexit settlement concerns the Northern Ireland protocol — a matter on which France’s worries are shared more widely by its EU partners — under which Johnson agreed to border controls in the Irish Sea so that the region could remain part of the bloc’s single market, through an open land border with EU member Ireland.
Lord David Frost, the UK’s Brexit minister, has vowed that the UK will suspend parts of the agreement unless it receives generous concessions on Northern Ireland from the EU, an act that Beaune said would be “a big breach of trust as well as mistake for the stability of Ireland”.
At the ruling Conservative party’s conference in Manchester this week, UK ministers admitted that relations with Paris were in the deep freeze and likely to remain so, if not deteriorate further, until after next year’s French presidential contest because politicians there were playing to a domestic audience. “Hopefully things will thaw out after the elections,” said one senior minister.
There is no regret in London over the signing of the Aukus pact. “Does anyone think the French would have acted any differently if the shoe was on the other foot?” said a cabinet minister.
But there is an acceptance that France could make life difficult on a number of issues. One minister said the only consolation was that “things can hardly be any worse than they are now”.
The underlying problem from the French perspective, according to analysts, is that neither Johnson nor his government are trusted in Paris.
“I think it’s quite serious,” said Lord Peter Ricketts, former UK ambassador to France. “It’s not just a short-term row. It’s a deep loss of respect and trust . . . At the beginning, Macron was intrigued by Johnson after his victory. But now they [the French] have simply concluded that he’s untrustworthy and not a serious person.”
The repeated flare-ups of hostility between the two sides are exacerbated by issues that predate Brexit, including the continued flow of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats despite UK-funded French attempts to stop them.
The management of Covid-19 has also been problematic, with the UK at one point imposing burdensome restrictions on travellers from France that were assumed to be politically motivated.
But Brexit and its aftermath remain the main bones of contention, with the pro-Brexit British press portraying the actions of Macron and the French as mean-spirited punishment for Britain having left the EU.
Tit-for-tat jibes have become the norm. Johnson mocked Macron in “franglais” over France’s anger about Aukus, suggesting he “prenez un grip” and “donnez-moi un break”.
That prompted Beaune to respond by scoffing at Brexiters who “want to tell us how everything works better in the UK than the EU”. “I’m not saying everything in the EU is perfect, but if Brexit is really about leaving Europe, then move on to something else,” he said. “To re-use that expression ‘Give us a break’, we’re just trying to defend our interests and make sure an agreement is respected.”
Beaune also noted archly that if the Northern Ireland protocol was really such a big problem then there would be more shortages in Northern Ireland than the rest of the UK, when in fact the opposite was true.
The one area where both sides remain keen to continue working together is in military operations, even if enthusiasm for joint development of defence equipment has faded over the past decade. “There are no two sets of armed forces that are more capable of integration,” Johnson said when trying to soothe Macron over Aukus.
France has the same view of western Europe’s two biggest militaries. “The French have always been very concerned about making sure that the UK remains a key player in European security,” said Georgina Wright, head of the Europe programme at the Institut Montaigne. “There’s a willingness to move on from Brexit. Whether it’s climate change, security or migrants, France is pretty willing to work with the UK . . . But the [UK’s] souring relationship with Europe does bleed into the bilateral relationship.”
For Mujtaba Rahman, of the Eurasia Group consultancy, Franco-British co-operation on defence and security is overshadowed by the current bad-tempered politics.
“Unfortunately, the relationship is likely to be volatile for quite some time, as Macron enters a difficult election cycle and the UK continues to scapegoat the EU for domestic political advantage,” he said.