Power fail: French tantrum diplomacy is wearing thin

6 October 2021

8:01 AM

6 October 2021

8:01 AM

It’s hard for tabloid journalists to engage in mad hyperbole when politicians seem all too willing to do it for them.

Clément Beaume, France’s Secretary of State for European Affairs, has just desperately threatened to turn off the power supply to Britain. Or as Bloomberg so delicately puts it, ‘to leverage [France’s] electricity supplies to the U.K. in an effort to force Boris Johnson’s government to grant access to British fishing waters.’

‘The Channel Islands, the U.K. are dependent on us for their energy supply,’ said Beaune in an interview on Europe1 radio. ‘They think they can live on their own and badmouth Europe as well. And because it doesn’t work, they indulge in one-upmanship, and in an aggressive way.’

Aggressive? Le pot appelle la bouilloire noire.

‘Brexit is populism in action,’ Beaune said. ‘It’s shown to be a tragic failure.’

This is, of course, catnip for Europhiles in Britain and on the continent, and it is clearly a crude attempt to exploit Brexit Britain’s current energy crisis for diplomatic advantage. But it’s foolish in the extreme and with any luck more senior figures in Europe know it.

Beaune is only 40 years old – three years younger than his boss, president Emmanuel Macron. But inexperience is no excuse for such diplomatic folly. Brexit Brit-bashing might excite headline writers, but the French hand is weaker than he imagines. And not just because French exports of electricity to Ireland pass through the UK.

Perhaps Beaune is unaware that there are currently reduced French electricity exports to the UK because an interconnector has been damaged by a fire. Or that France’s state-owned generator EDF is a major player in the British domestic electricity market with a 10 per cent market share.

The French have far too much skin in the British energy game.

EDF is massively exposed to the overdue and massively over-budget Hinkley Point C nuclear reactor project with a sweetheart deal to sell its eventual output to the UK – a deal that might be unlikely to survive if France turns out the lights this winter. The French energy giant is also €42 billion (£35 billion) in debt, not even counting the cost of decommissioning its ageing nuclear reactors, a project which has been kicked into the long grass for years.

If Britain were to retaliate against France switching off the cross-channel power extension cord by breaking off the Hinkley deal, it could arguably plunge EDF into insolvency. Moreover, is France really ready to plunge a major trading partner into darkness, all in the cause of protecting its fishing rights?

Macron and his team have evidently calculated there are votes to be won in bashing the British. But French tantrum diplomacy is wearing thin and is looking increasingly frantic of late. This is the second hissy fit thrown by Paris in a month, following Australia’s cancellation of a deal for submarines.

Paris in both cases has run to Brussels to seek allies to punish the perfidious Anglo-Saxons, hoping to exploit lingering continent-wide resentments over Brexit. Brussels has proffered platitudes but not much more. Taking any of this seriously would be absurd. Brit-bashing might win over some votes, but threatening to escalate a fishing row into an energy conflict seems a rash and silly threat.

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