Seeking Refuge: As UK decries Calais migrants, Cameron keeps quiet. Why?

Many Britons are railing against France for not doing enough to stop migrants trying to reach the UK from Calais. But the prime minister is taking a decidedly non-confrontational tack with the French.

Emilio Morenatti/AP
A migrant crosses a fence as he attempts to access the Channel Tunnel in Calais, northern France, Saturday. Some thousands of migrants in Calais have been trying to board freight trains or trucks destined for the UK, prompting much criticism of France among the British. But Prime Minister David Cameron has avoided joining the chorus.

There is something allegorical in the TV images Britons are getting these days from the refugee crisis in Calais, France.

For the last half-century, UK residents have heard that most things coming from Europe are bad for them. And as thousands of would-be migrants attempt to jump on trains across the English Channel, it is, to the eyes of anti-Europeans in Britain, the French police and state who allow this to happen.

But as British media urge the government to send the army to Calais to put order amid a migrants crisis, and members of the British Parliament decry French authorities as “backstabbers,” one person wasn’t lured into the shrill blame game: Prime Minister David Cameron.

While he said he was determined to stop the “swarm” of asylum seekers, he was quick to pledge collaboration with Paris and he pointed fingers at no one for the chaos. A day later, the British home secretary and French interior minister co-authored a rare editorial piece in The Telegraph saying they are working hand-in-hand to solve the Calais situation.

All of this points to the Conservative government’s priorities: Mr. Cameron needs France to open up his possibilities for European Union reform and he won’t let the migrants get in the way.

A testy relationship

The crisis – where thousands of foreigners are pushing into the French entrance of the Eurotunnel to illegally reach Britain – comes at a special time for Cameron’s foreign policy. He is seeking to convince 27 EU partners to accept changes to Britain’s membership, or else the country might exit the bloc altogether. The toughest partner to win over is likely to be France, which has traditionally led the idea of an ‘’ever deeper union’’ and is opposed to devolution and à-la-carte membership.

"The reason for the soft approach Cameron has had over Calais is because he is trying to have French support for some of the renegotiations,’’ says Iain Begg, professor at the European Institute of the London School of Economics. "There are probably concerns in London about having to deal with France, as opposed to having to negotiate with [more economically liberal] countries such as Germany, Sweden, or the Netherlands, which may be more sympathetic to UK demands.’’

Cameron has pledged to hold a referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU by 2017, but may move that date forward to next year to precede elections in Germany and France. He has said he wants to change his country’s membership terms ahead of the vote, to placate Euroskeptics. A majority of Britons want to stay in, according to polls, but the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) came in third in the May general elections.

While Franco-British animosity goes as far back as the Napoleonic Wars, there has been more recent history of confrontation within the framework of the EU. That has helped foster a mutual image of uncomfortable, and sometimes irritating, allies.

It was the French who took charge against Britain’s demand for a EU spending rebate in 1984. The discord became a personal feud between the countries’ two leaders: Margaret Thatcher, the fierce advocate of liberalism who had a career-defining moment in the rebate battle, against François Mitterrand, the pro-Europe Socialist. While Britain won a concession in the end, the fight still clearly irked both parties some 25 years later. In a 2009 interview with the BBC, Jacques Attali, a special aid to Mr. Mitterrand in 1984, attacked Mrs. Thatcher for selling a defeat as a victory at home, and for crying as a “broken lady” after the negotiations.

Nerves ran high again during a meeting of European heads of state in December 2011 aimed at passing a new budget treaty for the Union in the midst of the eurozone economic crisis. Britain and France were at loggerheads over Cameron’s demand for an opt-out in financial services regulations to exempt Britain's City of London financial hub. As France vetoed this, the UK retaliated by blocking the new European budget treaty. French President Nicolas Sarkozy sharply said the failure was due to “the position of our British friends.”

Reasons for unity

Cameron now needs to push for topics that have gained popularity among the British electorate and won support for UKIP. Those will include limiting the free movement of people, increasing the weight of national parliaments over European institutions, and the option to skip out of some common policies. Britain will also seek to eliminate red tape and social regulation, a move that other states may feel sympathy for. Britain also advocates a stronger trade partnership with the US.

Those ideas run counter to France’s understanding of the bloc. To Paris, Europe is a developing political entity that grows and strengthens as members share common policies. The country is a champion of labor-market intervention. In foreign policy, they prefer a tighter trading bloc and appear less keen on opening up to American competition.

"[French President François] Hollande needs to maintain the idea that he is kind of a guardian of the European Union spirit,’’ says Gaspard Estrada, a political analyst at Sciences Po in Paris. “He will need a story line that he’s kept a stronger Europe together for his re-election in 2017. A UK renegotiation goes against that, and it opens a Pandora's Box with other members.”

Cameron may have some advantages this time as he tries to win over French support, according to Charles Lichfield, a European analyst at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group in London. Among them, French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, a former banker who himself is trying to deregulate the economy at home, may be closer to Britain’s market-friendly aspirations than many of his predecessors.

And Britain and France certainly can – and do – work together regularly. While each has a different view of social policies, foreign trade, and economics, they meet on other points. Both countries have backed a strong European Council, the regular executive meetings of heads of state. As the two largest military powers in Europe, they have collaborated, mostly outside the EU, in defense matters. And they happily work together as a counterbalance to German power.

"I’m being a bit optimistic about Britain’s negotiations only because of the slightly too negative picture of the task that is being painted,’’ says Mr. Lichfield. "For anyone who knows UK and French relations, and knows they are tempestuous, there are reasons to believe that the dialog is going quite well.”

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