French long for Britain to put EU debate to bed

The French will breathe an almighty sigh of relief when the UK finally puts to bed the question of its place in the EU, Britain’s ambassador to France tells The Local.

French long for Britain to put EU debate to bed
David Cameron leaves the Elysée Palace after talks last month. But he'll probably be back for more. Photo: AFP

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has spoken of the “long road” towards the UK's referendum on the EU.

Along that rocky road, he must try to convince EU “partners” – in particular France – of the need to reform the EU so he can renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the bloc.

His efforts began in Paris last month when he held tentative talks with French president François Hollande.

The French head of state reiterated the old official French line that Paris was keen for Britain to stay in the EU for the interests of all parties.

Nevertheless behind the scenes the French have grown frustrated with the UK’s attitude towards Europe over the years.

An editorial published last year in France’s leading newspaper Le Monde urged Britain to leave “before you wreck everything” and a poll in September 2014 revealed a majority of French favoured booting the UK out of Europe, rather than hear their concerns.

“We are sick of Cameron coming over here making demands,” was how one French person summed it up after his recent trip to Paris.

Britain’s top diplomat in France, Sir Peter Ricketts, said there will be relief all round Europe if the question of Britain's place in the EU can be finally put to bed.

“This issue of Britain’s place in Europe has been hanging over us for years and years,” he said.

“The point of this is to get rid of that uncertainty and deal with the issue, as well as to get some reforms and get a clear decisive view from the British people which ends the debate,” he told The Local.

“I think honestly there will be a great sigh of relief here in France and elsewhere in Europe if we can deal with this issue once and for all.”

(Sir Peter Ricketts, Britain's ambassador to France.)

Strain for Franco-British relations?

The ambassador is confident Cameron can negotiate the reforms he wants and then successfully campaign to keep Britain in the EU.

“There will be a time of uncertainty but at least the government is tackling the issue,” he said.

“We want to clarify the basis with which we work with our EU partners and if we can do that then I don’t think it will reduce our influence. We are strong members of the EU,” he said.

But before that referendum Cameron will have to persuade Hollande of the merits of his reforms, which as of yet he has not made totally clear.

France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has already accused the UK of playing a high risk game over Europe.

He said that one couldn't “join a football club and decide in the middle of the match we are now going to play rugby”.

It promises to be a tough few months to be a British diplomat in Paris, but the ambassador is upbeat.

“I don’t think it will put a strain on Franco-British relations. I think people all around Europe now are very interested to get into a discussion and that was very much the flavour of PM’s visit to Paris,” said Ricketts.

“He didn't come over demanding this and demanding that.”

“Everyone can see this issue of Europe is causing problems all around the EU. It’s not just a question in the UK that the unpopularity of Europe is an issue.”

Expats locked out of referendum vote

The landmark in/out referendum on Britain’s place in the EU was originally tabled for 2017, but it now looks like it will be held as early as May 2016.

That may suit those who want it over and done with as soon as possible but it doesn’t suit all British expats in France, many of whom won’t be able to vote on an issue that greatly affects them.

The Conservative government has promised to end the controversial 15-year-rule that prevents long-term expats from voting. But it won’t be done in time for the EU referendum.

Britain’s ambassador to Paris says the only recourse for frustrated expats is to send a letter to their MPs.

“I know its something which has caused a lot of frustration to expats and the government has said they are going to try and deal with it but as I understand it, the rule won't change in time for the referendum.

“What I can say is if people feel strongly they should write to MPs about it because it will be MPs who will decide this in the House of Commons as the bill goes through. That's the vehicle for it.”

But France-based expat Brian Cave, a longtime campaigner for voting rights, says the ambassador is just passing the buck.

“Many of us have no MPs because we have no vote. We are disenfranchised,” Cave told The Local.

“Is it not obvious that the result of the referendum affects mostly those living in other States of the EU?

“And especially those who have lived there for more than 15 years. Yet it is those who have no vote.”

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