Former Chancellor Nigel Lawson famously said that the National Health Service is the nearest thing we British have to a state religion. You could say much the same thing about the European Union and the French.
To our Gallic neighbours, the ‘construction of Europe’ is a sacred task that brooks no challenge. What goal can be higher than binding the once bellicose German nation into a new rules-based European order that has brought peace to a continent riven by war and revolution? What nobler cause for France than leveraging the outsized economic heft of its neighbour outre-Rhin in support of its mission to create an alternative beacon of enlightenment values to counter that tawdry Anglo-Saxon economic and cultural hegemony?
Attempts to challenge such logic are met not just with incomprehension from the French elite, but with the kind of full-on wrath that previous generations reserved for heretics, scoffers and unbelievers of every stripe. And the fact that the attempts to bind the wayward British into the French, sorry, European project, have blown up spectacularly through Brexit, has only added to the fervour of French devotion to the cause.
It is against that background that the current spat over the Northern Ireland Protocol needs to be understood. The proximate cause is the status of the only land border between the UK and the EU, and the EU requirement for intrusive customs and health checks on transit cargoes from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland. However, the real fault lines run much deeper. France, for all its pretensions to laicité – secularism – remains a deeply Catholic nation, except that their fealty nowadays is to the corpus of EU acquis, rather than Canon Law. Britain, similarly, remains utterly Protestant in its way of doing things, privileging the spirit of the law over the letter, and relying on individual conscience as the ultimate arbiter of what is true and right.
This is why Britain always sat uncomfortably within the European Union as conceived by its largely Catholic founders, and ultimately had to break free. The British constitution, of course, allows no higher authority than the country’s freely elected parliament, which cannot bind its successor. Within our English common law tradition, the rule of law is not about slavish adherence to texts scrawled on parchment and handed down from on high, but being governed by living and breathing courts, judges and juries who temper the sharp edges of statute and contract language with commercial nous, pragmatism and common sense. Commodities currently in short supply.
Nathalie Loiseau, former French Minister of European Affairs, spoke for many when on the BBC she voiced her incomprehension that Britain, with its Johnsonian ‘hard Brexit,’ wasn’t satisfied with just leaving the EU and was seeking to undermine the European Single Market too. In French eyes, the Single European market was and has always been, a largely British project, an alien graft of Thatcherite free market dogma on a more mercantilist EU.
I was in Brussels in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher’s European Commissioner Lord Cockfield succeeded in turning Europe’s then largely bogus common market into the real thing. Cockfield’s genius was that of a latter-day Alexander the Great. He cut the Gordian knot of European integration by abandoning the fruitless attempts to harmonise divergent national regulations and instead, in typically English common sense fashion focused on broad principles. The idea was essentially, ‘Vive la difference’ and let market forces do their work.
However, things in Brussels are never quite so simple. Free thinking Brits believed market liberalisation could be left to work its magic. Badly regulated market practices would be driven out by good ones. Catholic France assumed the difficulties would force everyone back to the table to agree on more detailed rules. As ever, what came out was a diplomatic fudge.
Principles soon became more detailed and more prescriptive and less ambitious in scope. British firms that had salivated at the prospect of unfettered access to Continental markets lost interest as common rules for cars and refrigerators quickly passed while those governing trade in services in which the UK excelled, got bogged down in arguments about consumer protection and vital national interests.
In British eyes, a more liberal Europe would more easily strike free trade deals with other developed economies. As long as they conformed to the same broad principles, the detail was neither here nor there. You couldn’t be forced to eat chlorinated chicken, but at least you had the choice, and it would be cheap. France saw the potential for a bigger trade bloc to build a higher moat around its highly regulated labour market and made sure French farming interests always held sway.
I don’t believe anyone voted to be shut out of Europe. Brexit was always about seeking looser living arrangements that respected Britain’s right to do things its own way. After all, we are a civilised bunch who play cricket and don’t generally go about selling exploding toasters or flogging adulterated food. Now that we are longer married, surely we can see other people, forget to hang out the washing, and who knows, maybe even get on better than we did before?
To the French, Britain has gone completely rogue, and is no longer fit to be seen in respectable company, especially after the AUKUS debacle which saw Perfidious Albion brazenly flirting with their old flame across the sea – when Trump was in office, no less.
Paris accuses Britain’s clown prince Boris Johnson of ‘cakeism’, or as the French would say, wanting his butter and its price as well. But cakeism has long been the EU’s principal MO.
With the UK still in the EU, Irish Republicans could act as if they had as good as united Ireland, while Northern Irish Unionists stayed loyal to the British Queen. Germany could pretend to go along with French delusions of grandeur, confident that the ever pragmatic Brits would torpedo any grand projects before they got out of hand. But Brexit has put an end to this diplomatic legerdemain. The EU, egged on by France, insists that to protect the Single Market there has to be a border. They say that if it is not across the island of Ireland, which would breach the 1998 Good Friday Peace accord, it has to be in the Irish Sea, separating the British mainland from its Northern Irish province. Now that the UK has left this unhappy Union, Britain and France look like a couple that has just gone through a very bad divorce. Common sense dictates they should cooperate for the sake of the children, yet they continue to relive old arguments, just in a different form.
It is as though France, like Gwyneth Paltrow after consciously uncoupling from Chris Martin, still wants to keep her former spouse close at hand. In an ideal world, both sides would now reflect on why the EU struggled to accommodate the UK into its structures and apply those lessons to a new way of working that suited both sides. Alas, that is not the world we live in. It seems that rows over trade are never really just about trade.