French hit nerve with Brexit claim about US influence

Sir Peter Westmacott in The Times – 24/04/2019

A French diplomat’s claim that Britain has lost influence in Washington because of Brexit is supported by former foreign secretaries and senior officials.

Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the US, said that Britain had “vanished” from the American capital because it had become consumed by wranglings over its exit from the EU.

He also claimed that Britain’s most senior diplomat in Washington had complained to him that American generals were talking up the French military, hinting that France was becoming the preferred defence partner for the US.

Sir Peter Westmacott, a former British ambassador to Washington, said of Mr Araud: “He is not averse to point scoring. But he is, sadly, right that Britain is so absorbed with Brexit that we don’t have much bandwidth for anything else.” He added: “Once the destructiveness of the Brexit debate is behind us, there is no reason why we shouldn’t remain, with France, a major European player and a close partner of the United States. So, Gérard, enjoy it while you can!”

Former foreign office officials said Britain had lost focus on international alliances and issues and had neglected global leadership roles. They also raised concerns that Brexit would entail the loss of the UK’s leverage with America.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Conservative foreign secretary, told The Times: “It would be absurd for us not to acknowledge that Brexit, at least in the short term, is doing us damage, because it looks as though we’ve stopped being even interested in any other subject.”

Another former foreign secretary, who asked not to be named, said the colourfulness of Mr Araud’s rhetoric was typical of a “strain of vainglorious conceit in French thinking”, but added: “He’s right that we’ve been losing influence hand over fist [owing to Brexit] and perhaps that’s why Theresa May has invited Donald Trump to the UK.”

Former mandarins said the idea that Washington was looking to partner Paris on defence could have credibility. Sir Simon Fraser, a former permanent under secretary at the foreign office, said France had shown itself more willing to intervene around the world. He added that “many people think the Brits have pulled in their horns since Iraq and Afghanistan, and then Libya”.

A senior British source said that the UK retained deep links with the US and the White House. “The president and the prime minister talk a lot,” the source said. “Theresa May was the first international visitor to meet the president a week after the inauguration. On the same visit, she also addressed a Republican party retreat of senators and congressmen back in January 2017.”

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