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For Brexiters who dreamed of regaining control, France is too close for comfort | Rafael Behr

Considering that the width of the English Channel does not change, it is surprising how often British politicians seem surprised by the proximity of France.

Currently, Priti Patel is enraged by the volume of people crossing in small boats. Boris Johnson is frustrated with Patel’s inability to stop the traffic. Tory MPs who told voters Brexit secured the nation’s perimeter are alarmed that their bragging was premature.

Great Britain alone cannot cope with the migrations launched from Calais. The Home Secretary and the Prime Minister tried to blame the French authorities for the laxity of the police, but then realized the folly of opposing a government whose help they badly need.

The problem is that borders have two sides and there are limits to what can be done by “taking back control” of just one of them. Plus, Brexit ideologues were confused about water. They saw the ocean to the west of Britain as a sea highway for the transport of goods and the much smaller sea on its southeast flank as a ditch to keep people out. In 2018, Dominic Raab stunned a conference auditorium by admitting that he “didn’t quite understand the full extent” of the UK’s economic dependence on Dover-Calais trade.

Managing the EU’s borders after Brexit has always been tricky. It’s harder when relations with Paris are strained. Migration is just a point of tension. Access to fishing is another. Emmanuel Macron was offended by the exclusion of his country from the recent security partnership agreement between the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States (Aukus).

Downing Street sees the French president as a Brexit enemy who preaches anglophobia in Brussels. It is true that Macron is taking a hard line against anything that could undermine the single market or undermine EU solidarity. This is because he recognizes the European project as an amplifier of French power. Additionally, there is a presidential election next year in which the incumbent faces Eurosceptic challengers. He could do without an unwelcome neighbor who would provide his rivals with positive anti-Brussels case studies.

Ministers speak of Macron’s posture for a national audience with condescending indulgence, as if it were a unique and unknown foreign practice in British outspokenness. Downing Street is reported to be planning a big reconciliation once next year’s Elysee poll is completed. We are talking about a deep strategic partnership, based on the Lancaster House agreement that David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy signed in 2010.

This is a plausible ambition as the two largest military powers in Western Europe share long-term security interests that transcend any quarrel over cod. In addition, defense issues are primarily a concern of nation states, even for the most integrationist European leaders.

The Lancaster House Treaties were signed between two members of the EU. Brexit does not undo the logic of this partnership, but the Johnson government is making life difficult by claiming that its foreign policy with mainland capitals and its trade relations, as negotiated through Brussels, are separate things and barely linked.

Lord Frost, Johnson’s Brexit Minister, was explicit on this point, describing a future relationship with the bloc as a patchwork of bilateral agreements with member states. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss doesn’t seem to see EU relations as part of her job at all (perhaps because Frost snatched that part of the wallet).

The denigration of the relevance of the EU is a requirement of belief in Brexit. Accepting that Macron’s pro-EU stance reflects a rational appreciation of his nation’s interests risks admitting that an equivalent dynamic once applied on this side of the Channel. After all, the two countries have so much in common. But that was the last argument (although it was poorly articulated in the campaign).

Other reasons must therefore be invented to explain why relations with France have become so thorny. The Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, suggested this dialogue was particularly delicate last month because “the French are always cranky in October, the birthdays of Trafalgar and Agincourt upset them”. Even if he was not serious, it says a lot about the degradation of British political culture that seriousness is not a requirement when cabinet ministers intervene in sensitive foreign relations matters. No one on the French side felt compelled to raise the Battle of Castillon.

The childish compulsion to reference medieval wars, Napoleon and the Third Reich is a way for Brexiters to deny the contemporary economic and strategic reality of the European project. There is no need to build an analysis from modern facts or even recent history if the immutability and secretive agenda of the EU is encrypted in events prior to the Treaty of Rome.

The parochialism that masquerades as historical scholarship is a chronic syndrome in conservative Euroscepticism. This is Johnson’s preferred idiom as a propagandist, not least because it relieves him of his duty to deal with the details. But that does not translate into practical government. It feeds the fiction that Britain may have a foreign policy for the former continental powers that avoids engaging in their modern interests as members of the EU. This is the heart of the misunderstanding with France, and the relationship will not be fixed until it is resolved. The reality of 21st century Europe cannot be dismissed any more than the Channel can be enlarged.

Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist



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