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The UK election: A view from Paris

France would not want the United Kingdom to leave the EU, writes Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, its historical ambivalence toward Britain and their divergent views on Europe’s future. The United Kingdom remains a key partner, and many in France see it as a valuable counterweight to Germany. France, like many other member states, thinks that the union would be weakened by the loss of its second-largest economy, a global commercial power with significant military and diplomatic influence. However, Paris is critical of the British vision of an “à la carte” Europe designed to serve purely national interests and opposes any renegotiation of the EU Treaties.

French President François Hollande is prepared to consider British demands for EU reform and could accept changes that simplify EU procedures and cut red tape. Paris, however, is firmly set against any move to grant the U.K. opt-outs on issues such as the free movement of people, workers’ rights, environmental protection, or food safety rules. A middle ground could be found. On free movement of workers, for example, the EU could allow member states more scope to determine conditions for access to social benefits without a treaty change. France could support Britain on speeding up moves that are underway toward better regulation of the EU’s single market.

France and the U.K. differ about the EU’s role on security and defense. France had hoped that the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties — which pledged closer operational, military-industrial, and nuclear cooperation between Britain and France — would strengthen the EU as a strategic actor. The U.K., however, does not share this ambition, which it sees as potentially undermining NATO. Despite these differences, pragmatic Franco-British strategic leadership has enabled the first steps to be taken towards an EU Common Security and Defense Policy.

Military expenditure as a proportion of GDP has been declining in both France and Britain. But the U.K. appears more reluctant to project military power, after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Britain now plays a modest role on many major foreign policy issues. On Ukraine, Berlin and Paris have taken the lead, at times in liaison with Poland. The British Parliament’s rejection of military action against the Assad regime in Syria to prevent the use of chemical weapons in August 2013 contrasted with the French government’s readiness to act.

France is perplexed by Britain’s absence from key foreign policy, security, and defense initiatives and is concerned that a British decision to leave the EU could accentuate this trend. By contrast, a British referendum vote to remain inside the EU would revive prospects for closer cooperation between France and Britain in a number of fields. Overall, Paris is likely, therefore, to seek accommodation with the U.K., provided this does not call into question any of the EU’s fundamental principles or require treaty change.

Dr. Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer is based in Paris and is a senior transatlantic fellow and the director of the Paris office of The German Marshall Fund.


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