By Michael Curtis
Speak low if you speak camaraderie. Diplomatic gifts date back to the ancient world, and have symbolized friendship, peace, appreciation, or anticipation by the donor. Sometimes the gifts have been unusual, even bizarre. In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette gave John Adams an alligator. Iran gave Russian President Vladimir Putin two Persian leopards. In 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron gave President Barack Obama a ping-pong table made in China.
The Bulgarian president gave President Bush a book titled The Leadership Genius of George W. Bush. Secretary of State John Kerry gave Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov two large potatoes from Idaho. Occasionally a gift has unfortunate consequences. The electoral defeat of Valery Giscard d’Estaing in 1981 was at least partly attributable to his acceptance of a large gift of diamonds from Jean-Bedel, Bokassa I, the self-proclaimed Emperor of the Central African Republic.
The most recent and intriguing diplomatic gesture has come from French President Emmanuel Macron, the young, highly energetic, ambitious, self-confident leader interested in the “refoundation of Europe,” and in a prominent role for France. politically and economically, including investment destination. Macron is more prone to engage in grand gestures and the exercise of charm rather than quiet diplomacy. At this point it is uncertain whether British Prime Minister Theresa May has succumbed or resisted that charm, but Macron’s gesture to UK is captivating.
President Macron on January 18, 2018, agreed to loan Britain, probably in 2022, the Bayeux Tapestry, though at the end it may be too fragile to move. A remarkable achievement of the art of the Norman Renaissance, the work, 70 meters long and 50 cm high, is embroidered, not woven, and therefore not technically a tapestry, though always referred to as such. It relates the story of the years 1064-1066, of the events up to and including the Norman conquest of England and the battle of Hastings.
The tapestry has never left France in 950 years, even during World War II, when Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler tried, and failed, to take it to Berlin. It provides a simplified view of a complex political and military struggle from the death of Edward the Confessor who became king of England in 1042 and following events until the Norman Conquest. There are a small number of leading characters. King Edward had no children and thus there was no automatic and accepted successor. After his funeral, Edward’s brother-in-law, the ambitious Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, was selected to become king. He was immediately confronted by a challenge for the throne by Harald Kardrada the Viking king of Norway who invaded with 10,000 men and was defeated and killed at the battle of Stamford Bridge.
However, William, illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy, who became a duke at age seven, claimed that Edward, whose mother was the great aunt of William, had promised him the throne. William invaded, the only person since Julius Caesar, veni, vidi, vici, to successfully invade Britain, and the last to do so. His army fought and defeated that of Harold on October 14, 1066 at the battle of Hastings. Thousands on both sides were killed, including Harold, and William, the Conqueror, took the throne. The Bayeux tapesty, which in fact was made in England, not in Bayeux, is the story of and implicitly the justification of the Norman Conquest.
Three interesting questions arise. Are the two countries making a new tapestry together or is Macron’s decision to loan Bayeux a symbolic article for France, a political statement, with its message of the defeat of the Anglo-Saxon Harold by the French William? Harold’s death marked the end of Anglo-Saxon rule over England. Is Macron hinting that Britain, in the throes of Brexit, cannot evade European rules?
A second question is how or if Britain will reciprocate in this diplomatic game with a gesture. Some options may be considered. Perhaps the most appropriate is loaning Paris the Rosetta Stone, the black granodiorite dating from an Egyptian decree issued in 196 B.C. taken from the French in Egypt in 1801, and now a main tourist attraction in the British Museum in London. The Stone was discovered by French soldiers and engineers during the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt, captured by British troops who defeated the French in Egypt in 1801 and transported to the BM.
The main question is, what policy will Macron take in relations with UK, both bilaterally and in the ongoing Brexit negotiations with the EU? He recognizes that the UK is a vital partner on security and defense, cyber and digital issues, and that France and UK provide about half of EU defense spending. Britain has provided three military helicopters to support France in its confrontation with Islamists in the Sahel region of Africa and Mali. France has committed troops to the UK-led NATO force, Enhanced Forward Presence, the multinational Battlegroup, in Estonia, set up after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine.
The first step is to obtain agreement on border controls at Calais, the processing of migrants trying to enter the UK, and the so-called “refugee jungle” outside Calais. The UK has agreed to pay, in addition to the £100 million it already pays, an additional $62 million to reinforce security, fences, CCTV cameras, detection technology. The bilateral Le Touquet agreement of 2003 allowed the UK and France to post border officials in the other country to monitor immigration and passports. In effect, it put part of the UK border in France. However, if and when UK leaves the EU, the border will be Dover, not Calais. Moreover, the UK will have to contribute to the cost of tighter border controls on the Channel crossing even after it leaves the EU.
Macron has been eager to obtain agreement on this issue of illegal migration, mostly from Eritrea, Somalia, Syria, and Afghanistan, on the French-UK border, including the issue of nonaccompanied minors. He has argued that UK should be more active in tackling the issue. His basic point is that it is not the fault of France that migrants are coming; the problem is that UK firms are too ready to employ illegal migrants.
As a result of the Sandhurst treaty of January 18, 2018, the processing of immigrants trying to come into the UK is expected to quicken. France wants to avoid repetition of the 2016 situation when migrants were living outside Calais.
Most important is French policy on Brexit. Macron has made clear that if Britain leaves the single market of the EU, British firms will have less access to export than they have now. He sees the choice for UK: between a relationship with EU, similar to the one that Norway has with the EU, not a member of EU but associated with it for trade issues, and a Canadian-style one, maintaining ties with European countries. Theresa May counters that though UK will not be a full member of the single market, it is in the interests of both sides to agree on a deal on goods and services. The City of London will continue to be a major global financial center, and that is an advantage not only for the UK but also for Europe and the global financial system.
Macron insists that if UK wants access to the single market, including the financial market, it must contribute to the EU budget and also acknowledge European legal jurisdiction, the European Court of Justice. Otherwise, UK may have trade access, but this is not full access to the single market or to financial services.
The outcome of the Brexit negotiations is unpredictable, but the Entente Cordiale is still alive. This was evident at the bilateral meeting at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in January 2018 when the French flag was raised over the site and “La Marseillaise” was played. Theresa May might not have said it to the French president, but she may thought, “play it again, Emmanuel.”