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Analysis
Cross-channel currents

Cross-channel currents

In Brittany, sympathy for Cameron

by John Nugée in Vannes, France

Thu 30 Jun 2016

It is unusual to be overseas and find one's country top of the news, not only on the front pages of the local press but also on the back pages (something to do with a soccer game against Iceland).

The mood here is almost as confused as it is in Westminster. Regional paper Ouest-France, which has a wide circulation, is not unsympathetic to David Cameron, the British prime minister. It observes that the UK 12 years ago championed free movement, but that the country since then has taken in immigrants equal to more than 5% of the population – more than any other European Union state.

Furthermore, says Ouest-France, the EU was warned this was corroding acceptance of free movement in its erstwhile champion as long ago as Cameron's January 2013 speech calling for a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, followed by a real wake-up call at the 2015 UK election which could not be ignored. The EU, it says, should have seen Cameron's plea for some sort of brake on free movement in February as the last chance to avoid a showdown.

The paper concludes that neither the UK nor the EU wants Britain to leave the single market, and that, ‘having proved impossible to square this with a brake on immigration with the UK inside the EU, it is now necessary to provide a way to achieve this with the UK outside the EU’.

As I say, quite sympathetic. Other papers, by contrast, have rounded on François Hollande, the French president, who they say ‘did nothing while the life-blood of EU harmony seeped away, and now has no idea how to revive the corpse’.

It is natural for French papers to pick on an unpopular French president and make him out to be the main actor who has failed. But there is a very cutting line from the far-right National Front party comparing the impotent silence of Brussels and Paris in the last days of the UK referendum with the ‘hyperactivity and promises from Westminster’ in the last days of the Scottish referendum: ‘Is it that Hollande did not understand the damage a Brexit would do to his dream, or is it that he did not care? Or is it that he both understood and cared, and even so he could not act?’

Elsewhere there are fears that there will be no deal between the UK and the EU ‘because the EU-27 do not and cannot speak with one voice’. The papers observe that, while Brussels is frustrated because there is no one in London with whom to negotiate, the UK looks like being even more stymied. For most of the two years of the Article 50 negotiating process (if there is one), either one or other – or both – of Berlin and Paris will be in election mode and desperately fighting populist insurgencies.

The one heartening thing is that I have met no personal animosity towards me as an Englishman. The average person is understanding, sympathetic and keen to stay friends. Of course that may be partly because I am in a tourist area in Brittany, where they know what (and who) pays their wages. But even so it is encouraging.

An interview on television programme Télé-Matin this morning encapsulated the mood. The commentator said that Hollande and the rest of the EU-27 leadership would achieve the extraordinary feat of proving both sides of the British campaign right.

On the one hand, those who wanted to remain will observe that, as predicted, the terms of departure will be harsh. On the other, those who wanted to leave will observe that the reason for this is that the EU is, as predicted, quite incapable of the flexibility and imagination necessary to avoid such a lose-lose outcome.

Quite an achievement.

John Nugée is a Director of OMFIF and a former Chief Manager of Reserves at the Bank of England.

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