Alphen, Netherlands. 31 January. On Wednesday evening I was sitting in the Sky Team business class lounge at Washington’s Dulles Airport with a senior French colleague and friend waiting for my KLM flight back to Amsterdam. We had chewed the cud about a range of matters strategic pertinent to our respective countries. It was a discussion that was just about as Franco-British as one can get during which he made a comment which for me sums up the Paris view of their London counterparts.
The specific issue at hand was Franco-British nuclear co-operation. My point was that as I could not envisage a scenario in which one country would use nuclear weapons and the other not London and Paris should find a way to co-operate more deeply. Surely, I opined, we could at least alternate patrols of French and British ballistic missile submarines at times of peace to reduce wear and tear? British and French nuclear submarines patrol just about the same bits of sea and have almost identical targets.
His response was to say that whenever France had proposed deeper co-operation the British had backed away. Nothing too French you might assume in that apart from precisely that – the assumption. To Paris Franco-British co-operation starts from an assumption that France sets the agenda and it is up to the British to respond.
For Paris that is how it should be. It is the job of French negotiators to get as much for France as is possible in any negotiation. And, they are very good at it. The real tragedy is that London lets Paris get away with it. Indeed, during my years living and working in Paris I saw repeated examples of supine British officials apologising privately for London’s inability to give France all and everything it wants.
Now, I know some senior British officials will read this and say that if I was in the room I would realise how hard they fight for this position or that. That is not my point and in any case I tend to know what goes on in the room. British negotiators are master tacticians able and willing to gain or squeeze advantage from the hopeless positions bequeathed to them by hopeless political masters. London’s political culture is now so defensive that London invariably surrenders the strategic high ground to France from the outset.
Since Britain retreated from the world in the 1960s British ‘strategy’ has been the search for common ground between the US, French and German position on all and anything. This has been compounded by Planet Whitehall which believes Britain should be in the Euro and at the heart of the EU whatever price Germany and France demand. The result is that London no longer thinks strategically for itself and is constantly on the negotiating defensive.
This game will be played out today at the Franco-British pub lunch. Downing Street spin has it that PR-Meister Cameron is going to forcefully try to convince President Hollande of the need for EU reform. However, Cameron has already said he will support Britain’s EU membership even if France (and more importantly Germany) says ‘non’, as the Élysee has also already said it will. The warm beer conversation will thus be short. Dave: “I want to reform the EU so that it becomes more competitive, more democratic and power is handed back to capitals”. Francois, “Non!” Dave, “OK then”.
After the meeting the Downing Street Press Machine will talk of “substantive discussions” and “real progress”. Strategy-free Dave, who has clearly been captured by his euro-friendly officials, will be told by the Mandarins present that by preventing summit failure he conducted a master-class in diplomacy. The confusion of strategy, politics and diplomacy is the very essence of Britain’s contemporary weakness.
In fact, the French position is also as weak today as at any time since the founding of the EU. The Franco-German axis is hollow to the point of empty, France is far more broke than Britain, Merkel and Hollande do not get on and the prospect of Britain leaving the EU should give London negotiating leverage if only the people do the negotiating believed in the possibility. Not only do they not believe in Britain leaving the EU but behind the scenes they are telling the French and others that they will do all they can to prevent it.
London should seize what is an historic moment and tell Paris that whilst the future Franco-British strategic relationship is vital - and it is - Paris must work with London if France really wants Britain to stay in the EU and help balance Germany. Right now, there is not the slightest incentive for Paris to do anything other than say ‘non’! Indeed, as far as the French are concerned Cameron will either cave in (likely) or Labour will win in 2015 (quite possible) and offer to hand over even more sovereignty to Brussels.
London: home of the warm beer drinking surrender monkeys.