A new guest blogger this week. At this rate, I’ll soon be able to retire. This one’s from a good friend, Bill Daly. He’s a Scottish writer who, very wisely, a few years back, decided that living in the south of France was probably a good idea. In a previous blog, a while ago, I used a quote from one of Bill’s books, The Pheasant Plucker, as an example of how to craft humour. That book and his latest, Black Mail, a much darker look at crime in Glasgow, are excellent reads. Here, though, he’s offering our PR-spouting, politically inept Prime Minister some advice on following the French approach to relations with Europe. All yours, Bill.
Here we go again! David Cameron is about to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Europe. Well the best of luck with that one, mate. Will the British never learn how to play the European game? Back in the 1960s, when De Gaulle was throwing his toys around, it was six against 1. In the Thatcher/Major era it became eleven against one and Cameron has succeeded in making it twenty-six against one, thus consolidating Britain’s place as The Thick Man of Europe. As George Bush might have said, the French don’t have a word for déjà vu.
You don’t have to be a committed Europhile to cringe every time a British politician gets involved with Europe. However, it’s interesting to observe the different approaches that come into play on either side of the Channel whenever Brussels sprouts. Without waiting to find out whether the bureaucrats have come up with a sensible proposal or a harebrained edict, the British tabloids generate a torrent of abuse and the politicians feel obliged to explode into self-righteous indignation while issuing threats of vetoes and retaliation.
In France, there’s nary a ripple. The French have non-confrontation down to a fine art and it’s with a beaming smile and a flourishing doff of the proverbial cap that the responsible civil servant will intone the Gallic equivalent of: ‘Yes, sir, yes, sir; three bags full, sir’ – and then proceed to implement the directives that suit his political masters while studiously ignoring the others. Consummate bureaucrats to their fingertips, the French portray themselves as the epitome of model Europeans, knowing full well that Brussels is competent to monitor only the acceptance of directives, not their implementation. ‘Of course, Monsieur, if it’s straight bananas you want, we’ll pass a law ordering all bananas to grow straight – and rest assured that any banana found not to be conforming with this very important directive will be consumed forthwith’.
In the 1990s, when John Major was getting his knickers in a twist over restrictions on British beef exports following the BSE crisis, the French quietly finessed their problems. While Major was the centre of attention, bouncing around the European stage like a jack-in-the-box on speed and threatening to grind the markets to a standstill with interminable vetoes, the French identified a few rogue cases of BSE in the north of the country – for good measure seeding the implication that perfidious Albion was to blame. They then culled a few cattle and declared their house to be in order while Brussels was preoccupied with stuffing Major back into his box.
The British work themselves up into a lather over trivia, such as the European directive requiring fruit and vegetables to be sold in metric quantities – a diktat of no practical benefit to either the vendor or the customer – and when the courts prosecute a few hapless costermongers for non-conformance, another round of tabloid-led, anti-Brussels invective is triggered.
If there happens to be a particular edict from Brussels that the French can’t stomach, they handle it low-key. When Brussels sprouted that the season for shooting migratory birds had to be shortened by three weeks, there was no public rhetoric or posturing in France. Although the proposal was anathema to the hunters – a lobby almost as powerful as the farmers – the politicians didn’t turn a hair. Instead, in a late-night parliamentary session, when there were only a handful of members in the chamber, a law was passed which overrode the Brussels’ initiative.
I’m-all-right-Jacques Chirac and his prime minister of the day stood aloof: ‘Awfully sorry about that glitch, chaps. It was nothing to do with us, you understand. Just a few of the lads getting frisky late at night and exercising their democratic rights. A bit unfortunate, but there’s nothing we can do about it now, I’m afraid – the constitution’s the constitution. Anyway, not to worry. We’ll have a word with them and make sure they don’t step out of line again. You know you can rely on us for unwavering support. After all, who was the first to have legislation about straight bananas on the statute book?
Now, where were we? Ah yes, you were about to ratify a twenty per cent increase in payments to French farmers under the Common Agriculture Policy…..’ .