Politicians are prone to think that a “reset” of relations can be achieved by a warm handshake and a hug for the cameras. But sometimes, the mask slips, and then they would do well to recall the dictum of that old bruiser Palmerston: no permanent allies, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests. Our French friends have never forgotten this, and indeed they often quote Palmerston, thinking it reflects British attitudes. If only!
The latest slipping of the mask is the report that France is holding up the procurement of ammunition for Ukraine because it wants only EU firms to be considered. Does this ring a bell? For me, it is exactly what happened over the Covid vaccine. Then, the French were determined to have a “European” (read French) vaccine, and an EU system was set up to produce one. But the famous Institut Pasteur and Sanofi failed to create one in time. Oxford University and AstraZeneca, backed by British taxpayers’ money, succeeded. President Macron claimed that the AstraZeneca vaccine was dangerous and ineffective, and the EU (rather illogically) tried to intimidate AstraZeneca into diverting supplies of its jab to Europe. More important than hastening mass vaccinations were the prestige of France and the interests of EU drug companies.
Not dissimilar was Macron’s reaction to the Aukus pact, in which Australia chose to buy Anglo-American nuclear submarines rather than French diesel-powered boats. Again, less important than the security of the Pacific were the prestige and interests of France. Macron recalled ambassadors from Canberra and Washington in an astonishing fit of pique; but deliberately did not recall his London ambassador in a feline slight to Britain, proclaimed not important enough to be threatened. Now we have possible limitations on ammunition supply for Ukraine. All these things have a common thread. The EU has no effective will apart from that of its leading members. They – France and Germany – have been pushed into grudging support for Ukraine by British and American action in supplying arms and encouraging Ukrainian resistance. This breaks with the earlier Franco-German policy, enshrined in the Minsk Accords they brokered in 2014 to appease Putin. Neither Germany nor France have been more than half-hearted in their backing for Ukraine. As for the EU as an organisation, it has no presence at all.
At a deeper level, Paris is pursuing a long-held and consistent policy, whose single-mindedness we can only envy. Most of it goes back to the brooding influence of Charles de Gaulle. The purpose of “Europe” for France is to protect French interests and magnify its global influence. Part of this was Macron’s diplomatic game with Putin. A broader aspect is France’s determination to create a “European” diplomatic and military capacity, which it assumes, probably correctly, would be French-led – and ideally would have Britain as an obedient auxiliary. Here, the problem has been the lack of enthusiasm of other EU countries. But the Ukraine conflict offers an advantage: other EU members are now willing to do more and spend more for security.
France’s formidable defence industry is a major part of its global power and influence. Just as it wanted to build submarines for Australia (even if they were not up to the job), it wants to make ammunition for Ukraine (even if this slows down the supply). It is determined to keep manufacturing capacity within the EU, as the foundation of the European great power status that it has consistently pursued for a good 60 years. Visionary speeches might not work on its partners, but the interests of European manufacturers can be mobilised. Can we criticise France for focusing on its national interest? We can urge it to accept other priorities, in this case the survival of Ukraine and the defeat, in one way or another, of Putin. But we have to realise that the extent of British public support for Ukraine is unusual, shared only by eastern European and Baltic countries in the front line. Macron has said that he does not want Russia humiliated, and would doubtless like the Ukrainians to compromise.
Where does this leave the EU? As an empty shell. Its great moral claim, as the guarantor of European peace, has collapsed. And post-Brexit Britain? Strangely, as a leading European power – as long as we are willing to make the political and financial effort.