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The Shopkeepers Still Bother France

The UK is really getting under France’s skin. PM David Cameron is trying to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership and calling for a referendum on the matter. This move places him within a very rich British tradition of infuriating the French. Gérard Errera, the former French ambassador in London and now chairman of a private equity group in France, put it succinctly:

“It is not just annoying to France, it is annoying to everybody, and that goes for those who would be the natural allies of Britain. If Britain thinks it can blackmail us, it will have to think again. Europe is at too critical a moment that anyone would want to allow Britain to complicate the situation even more.”

Former President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing also gave voice to France’s long-standing irritation:

“There has always been a contradiction in the British culture of wanting to keep a certain distance from what is happening in Europe but at the same time wanting to have a presence in European affairs to make sure what is going on suits them,” he told the FT. “That has been the case since the 18th century.”

It’s easy to understand both sides here. The UK doesn’t want to relinquish influence in Europe, but accepting all the terms of EU membership requires the UK to give up more economic and political sovereignty than Britain is willing to cede. On the other hand, wanting influence without playing by the rules is ultimately an unworkable position, not to mention vexing to those trying to legislate for the EU’s future.

Germany and the Netherlands have previously shown a willingness to accommodate Britain’s needs, but France is getting fed up. In the end, France may actually be aiming at a final UK exit: showing Britain the door would weaken the EU’s northern bloc and give France the ability to lead a Club Med bloc with Spain and Italy.

Paradoxically, the more the French appear to want the British out, the more likely it is that London will decide to stay. Though Cameron no doubt finds this situation frustrating at some level, there’s nothing quite so much fun as nettling the French.

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