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Europe's 'Most Dear Enemies' Locked in Dispute

By Jamie Dettmer August 17, 2020

A French author once described the British as "our most dear enemies."

Over the centuries, France and Britain have been key allies in 18 wars, but foes in 20 other conflicts. Rivalry and jealousy, and sometimes disdain, have never been far from the surface in Anglo-French relations, and the near neighbors are once again locked in acrimonious dispute – this time over migrants, as well as Brexit.

Frustrations are at boiling point between the next-door neighbors.

French officials, and the country's coronavirus-hit travel industry, reacted last week with indignation at the abrupt British decision to remove France off the list of safe countries to visit, requiring Britons returning from France after Saturday to quarantine for 14 days. That triggered a stampede of British tourists already in France to exit rapidly in a mad-rush bid to avoid having to quarantine on their return. And to dealt another body-blow to France's bid to attract tourists.

The French government has indicated that it will respond in kind, but has so far offered details of the reciprocal measures it is considering, although it appeared set Monday to announce quarantine requirements for people coming from Britain in a tit-for-tat move. The mayor of Calais described the British quarantine move an "aggression," and officials in Paris fumed and are especially furious over the lack of pre-notification and absence of discussion.

France's Transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari tweeted: "I told my counterpart, Grant Shapps, of our willingness to harmonize health protocols to assure a high level of protection on both sides of the Channel."

"The best thing I know between France and England – is the sea," Douglas Jerrold, a nineteenth-century British playwright, noted once. But that is proving not to be the case from either side's perspective now.

'Racist Country'

The French mood was not improved Sunday when Britain's interior minister, inflamed already tense Anglo-French relations by telling fellow Conservative lawmakers, during a private conference call, that migrants crossing the channel in small inflatable dinghies, and in ever larger numbers, to try to enter Britain illegally, were doing so because France is a "racist country."

British officials said Priti Patel stated the views of the migrants, not her own. But some lawmakers participating in the call said they got the distinct impression that she thinks the French are racist. "She was calling them racist and she is right. They are more racist than us," one lawmaker told the Britain's Sunday Times newspaper.

The British have been claiming for months that the French are not doing enough to help staunch the migrant channel crossings. Paris has demanded more than $40 million to subsidize crackdown on the French side of the channel flow of migrants. More than 4,300 migrants have crossed the channel this year.

Boris Johnson's government wants the French to be more military in their combating the burgeoning migrant traffic. Britain has appointed a former Royal Marine to oversee border force operations in the channel and Patel has been urging for a deployment of Royal Navy warships to stem the migrant flow. Xavier Bertrand, the president of a large northern French region bordering the channel who plans on challenging French leader Emmanuel Macron in the 2022 elections scoffed at the military proposal.

"The English have a nerve" he told Le Figaro newspaper. "They complain that France is not doing enough, but it is they who lure the migrants with their lax legislation. And it is the inhabitants of our coast who suffer the consequences."

Conservative lawmakers and leaders of Britain's Brexit party see the French as primary at fault and have locked in a war of words with the French. They have accused France of assisting an "invasion" of migrants, saying its border patrol ships just shadow the flimsy migrant inflatables and do nothing to turn them back.

"The invasion will continue unless we act," Brexit party leader Nigel Farage tweeted earlier this year. "It is just outrageous after all the money we have sent to France to deal with this problem that the French navy now escort illegal migrants into UK waters."

Last month, France and Britain signed an agreement to set up a joint police intelligence unit to tackle migrant smugglers. But Patel wants the French also to intercept migrants and return them automatically to French ports – the British government also wants its Border Force to be able to return to France migrants who have reached beaches on England's southern coast.

But the French have a different interpretation of international migrant law and the law of the seas, and so that prevents them from intercepting the migrants and forcing them back to France.


Underlying the disputes over migrants and quarantines, though, are sharp disagreements over Brexit and what kind of future trade relations Britain should have with the European Union. The current disputes are a foretaste of the increasing acrimony in the Brexit talks between London and the EU, say analysts.

Both the British and French say the other is unfairly trying to use the migrant influx as leverage in Brexit talks, linking the return of asylum-seekers who have made it to Britain in exchange for EU fishermen to maintain their access to British territorial waters, a key obstacle in Brexit negotiations.

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