Britain and France trading in role of victim, both sides find it easy

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Britain and France trading in role of victim, both sides find it easy

Julian Barnes, the novelist and chronicler of British French relations, said this week that both sides found it easy to slip into the role of accuser or affronted victim, trading on decades or even centuries-old outdated stereotypes of one another.

After 27 people died in the Channel, those stereotypes are in full view and it is almost impossible to resist the sniping, as each side says it will rise above the blame game, or in Emmanuel Macron's phrase instrumentalise the migrant crisis. The possibility that a rowdy dispute over post-Brexit fishing licences will finally explode with a blockade of Calais this weekend adds to the sense that this is a relationship on the edge of nervous breakdown.

Emmanuel Macron, who is trying to make sure he gets a place in the presidential runoff in April, can't afford to let the migration crisis run away from him. Boris Johnson has a lot at stake. Nigel Farage, his mysterious donors who are ready to pay their cheques, is once again stirring and threatening the right flank of the Conservative party. Johnson s backbenchers are struggling to square how Brexit regained control of the UK s border when 25,700 migrants arrived in the UK in a slow but steady stream of inflatable boats.

According to French sources, the British prime minister is positively neuralgic about the Channel, which is repeatedly returning to the subject of migrants and refugees in his private conversations with Macron. French diplomats say that Johnson is 80% driven by short-term domestic politics.

The home secretary, Priti Patel, is accused of being in trouble because he is accused of chasing headlines rather than a real-world solution. She promised in 2020 to solve the migrant crisis by the end of the year, but has self-evidently failed.

The easiest route for both sides is to point an accusatory finger across the Channel or to adopt the role of affronted victim.

Many military and diplomatic officials are in fact eager to keep the relationship functioning, and are trying desperately behind the scenes to do so. They are still looking for opportunities to cooperate on defence, including areas such as Mali, knowing defence has been the solid glue in the Franco-British relationship. But the glue is not sticking together with the rhetoric of David Frost, the Brexit minister, or Cl ment Beaune, Macron's election attack dog.

The French, faced by accusations that they have been dilatory about the Channel migrants, point out it takes only a moment to look at the toll of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean over the past six years to know if solutions the size of a tabloid headline could quell the urge to migrate, then it would have been found.

More than 20,000 people are estimated to have died in the Mediterranean this year, more than 1,300 of them are estimated to have died in the last year.

Britain is saying that France is not supposed to be a failed state like Libya, and should do more to close down the people smugglers. London has threatened to cut financial support for France's border policing if Paris doesn't stop the flow of migrants. The French complain that the UK, bereft of identity cards, oversees a labour market where migrants can blend invisibly into the UK.

Faced by the labour market, French opposition politicians but not yet the government itself are questioning the Le Touquet agreement, a bilateral treaty that allows British border force officers to carry passport checks in France, and vice versa. Since the UK is subject to the EU Dublin convention, which obliges asylum seekers to apply to the first country in Europe where they have stayed, it is claimed by the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights that it will make France the police arm of British migration policy before Brexit. That obligation will die with the passing of the EU.

France also grates at moral lectures from Britain; over the past year, 83,000 asylum applications were lodged in France, compared to only 31,000 in the UK. In 2020, the UK had 5.78 asylum seekers and refugees per 10,000 inhabitants, compared with 16.93 for France, 19.52 for Germany and 60.57 for Greece.

To unilaterally tear up the Le Touquet agreement in effect, waving migrants through to the UK would be to drop a bomb into the relationship.

Macron is aware that he needs to have the rest of Europe on his side. Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign secretary, recently complained that the remarkable aspect of Britain's map was that it erased Europe. There are limits to the European preparedness to fall behind the French tendency to equate the European national interest with the national interest of France.

Germany is working on preparing a bilateral agreement with the UK. Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, will visit Spain soon, an astute choice for her first visit to an EU state.

Both sides manoeuvres don't dare go beyond the brink.