Former French ambassador to the UK: ‘Brexit was big shock’

'The French in the UK had a sense of being abandoned. They said, ‘yesterday we were Londoners and today we are foreigners’

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Sylvie Bermann was France’s ambassador to the UK between 2014 - 2017, serving at the moment the Brexit referendum happened in 2016. She has now written a new book about Brexit and what it means for the future of the UK and Europe, titled 'Goodbye Britannia: Le Royaume-uni au défi du Brexit' (Editions Stock).

Today, she is retired from the diplomatic service and lives in Paris.

The Connexion spoke to her about the new book and her thoughts on Brexit. In this extended online version of the interview, she recounts those momentous days after the 2016 referendum, the xenophobia that followed, the differences in the Remain and Leave campaigns and about what lies ahead.

Did you know the UK well before becoming ambassador?

Yes, I’ve regularly visited and am interested in its literature and history. I have French friends who’ve lived there for 30 years and I have often worked very closely with British diplomats – my first post was in Hong Kong when it was a British colony. The French Quai d’Orsay and the Foreign Office are founded on the same principles.

When you arrived in the UK in 2013, what was the atmosphere like?

There was a sense, in London anyway, of confidence and joy. Everyone still spoke of the success of the 2012 Olympics and it was a time when the feeling in France was pessimistic so the feeling of those coming to London was of being able to breathe freely and being in a truly global city where things were going well.

The UK had the highest economic growth in the G7 and seemed to embody ‘happy globalisation’, which is why the Brexit vote came as such a surprise.

I know there were the austerity policies and in the rest of the country it was less easy in poorer areas, but the feeling we had in London was of success.

When I came the British told me that, coming from China before, I was going to be bored because nothing happens in the UK…

So the morning of the result came as a shock?

Yes, it was a big shock for me, and it was terrible for the French community in London.

Everyone who I saw – political staff, MPs, observers… the pollsters – had said Remain would win. Even Brexiters told me ‘we want to leave, but we know it’s not going to happen’.

I had been to an electoral event the night before where several ministers were present and everyone was confident.

I went back to the ambassador’s residence and continued to follow it – I only slept an hour – and after the results from Sunderland we realised it was going the wrong way.

It was a big shock, because it’s a real break-up. The French in the UK had a sense of being abandoned. They said ‘yesterday we were Londoners and today we are foreigners’.

Then there were xenophobic remarks. One French banker said he went to work the next day and his assistant said ‘if you like I’ll help you pack’.

In the book you refer to aspects of the Leave campaign such as the red bus promising €350million for the NHS or the threat that Turkey was about to join the EU – how do you feel about that?

Well we know very well they were lies, but a lot of people believed them and didn’t check. And there was no effort by [Prime Minister-at-the-time] David Cameron’s team to rectify that. They just repeated that we would be ‘stronger, safer and better-off’ in the EU.

There was no targeted campaign to rectify the false image of the EU - that it was too interfering, unelected, and the UK had no influence, whereas we French had the opposite sense that the UK had totally shaped the EU and its single market.

There was also a xenophobic campaign against immigration. We may think there was too much immigration in 2015, but the way it was dealt with was very violent.

There was confusion that was deliberately maintained. Some people who said they were Brexiters due to immigration actually said Europeans weren’t a problem to them, it was coloured immigrants – who had nothing to do with the EU.

And while we know politicians lie during electoral campaigns, this time it reached record proportions.

In fact, the UK had rather encouraged the expansion of the EU and immigration?

Yes, in France we were reticent and there were remarks about how we didn’t want Polish plumbers. We ended up with a seven-year transition period with immigration restrictions that Tony Blair didn’t want, thinking immigration was positive.

But he didn’t realise there would finally be a million Polish people. It’s still hard to find a plumber in France, but it was effectively a choice of the UK. Often Londoners told me it was no problem as they had full employment and needed these EU nationals. You know, in theory, in EU law if someone has no work, they have no right to stay more than three months.

You say in the book that Brexit would never have happened without Boris Johnson?

He was the UK’s most popular politician and so once he said he was in favour of Brexit it legitimised a position that before that was mostly supported by Farage and a small number of Tory backbenchers.

There was always some Euroscepticism, but what struck me was how it turned into Europhobia. David Cameron had wanted to resolve the problem with some of his MPs, and put it behind him, but never imagined we would leave.

It was unfortunate that Jeremy Corbyn was selected to lead Labour and he was a Brexiter himself.

Then there was the tabloid press – on top of Boris Johnson’s euromyth stories from his days as the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent – that gave a false idea of the EU.

As the Ladybird book ‘Story of Brexit’ put it, some people understood the issue was ‘something about the freedom of bananas’… Some people also claimed the EU was going to demand the end of the British monarchy, which was nonsense.

However, at first you appreciated Mr Johnson, especially for his support over the terror attacks in France?

Yes, that was very important, and he is charming, intelligent and funny, and likes to speak French. But I regret Brexit and think it’s a loss, diplomatically, and I think we ought to have good relations, but at the moment they’re rather difficult.

I hope it’s going to improve in the future and considering the international situation and the weight of certain countries like China, the US or Russia, I think we would be better off together.

They say it was a sovereign choice of the British, and it’s true, but at the same time it’s a divorce and we are concerned as well and are entitled to have feelings about that.

In the book you say Mr Johnson told you ‘everything will be fine’…

He has always had this rather over-the-top optimism that Brexit would be a fantastic opportunity. I felt he was sincerely astonished when I said it would be difficult.

There have been accusations in some of the UK press of the EU wanting to punish the UK…

Yes, they thought that France in particular was trying to punish them. I think they still find it hard to understand that the EU needs to protect its single market. We Europeans would all have preferred the UK to remain. If there are new barriers to trade, like plant and animal health checks, it’s normal and not something that we chose. It’s the consequence of their decision. But as the Brexiters have always been partly driven by emotion, they continue to reproach us for it.

What do you think of the Brexit deal?

It is bare-bones because they wanted at all costs to leave at the end of last year, and it includes nothing for the UK’s important financial sector. At the last minute the EU had proposed some flexibility for performers and sportspeople, but it was refused, inexplicably.

The withdrawal from Erasmus is a shame, because it helped young Britons to forge an identity that isn’t just insular. There’s a risk of the UK closing in on itself, which isn’t for that matter Boris Johnson’s own mentality.

Now there are a lot of difficulties and contradictions to resolve. There are problems for the British fishermen and small businesses.

At the moment, the UK has a more effective vaccination campaign than the continent’s so that’s what’s being highlighted.

That has changed since the book has come out – you wrote about how there were criticisms of Mr Johnson’s handling of the health crisis.

Yes, but the book was sent for printing in January.

I think the EU’s vaccination policy was good in principle – to do it in solidarity because otherwise small countries would have difficulty in getting the vaccine.

Unfortunately there were perhaps not enough vaccine doses ordered and perhaps not enough aid was given to the laboratories beforehand, but then we were confronted by the problem of labs that were not able to supply what they had promised, which is not the EU’s fault.

Then the vaccination campaign has been insufficient and too slow in the EU. So in this sense Boris Johnson’s vaccination strategy has been better, even if the delay in lock-down last year meant the country has had a high number of deaths.

How do you see the future for the British in France?

I hope it continues because I think it’s very good to have a lot of Britons in France.

I think for those who are living there, yes it’s more complicated in bureaucracy, but I think it will be like in the UK, where many French people have asked for permanent residency cards and others have asked for British nationality because it makes things easier.

I’ve known Britons in France who were local councillors and committed to local life in their villages, who regretted losing that. It’s a shame but it’s a right linked to EU citizenship.

Are things better for the French in the UK now compared to after the vote?

I think those times are mostly over, though I’m not there any more. I am however struck by anti-European articles in some of the press, and perhaps that won’t get better if there is less frequent contact than before.

You are sceptical about the UK’s ambition to be a ‘global Britain’?

Nothing was stopping Britain being global in the EU – Germany trades with the whole world and France does pretty well. In the EU we pool our sovereignty and we make a critical mass compared to the great powers.

Who will it be global with? It didn’t work out with Trump and Biden thinks Brexit is an error and his priority is the EU.

With China, the UK on the one hand is critical of them but also wants to trade, but there’s a contradiction there. The Chinese president visited London before Brexit and said London would be China’s best friend and gateway to Europe, but it can’t be that any more. On the contrary, firms in the UK are now setting up in Europe instead. Relations are very hard with Russia.

So I think it’s an illusion, though it remains to be seen.

We French hope to see convergence with the UK on matters of foreign policy and defence, we very much want this bilateral relationship.

In the last few years, it’s all been about the EU talking to the UK…

Yes, we wanted to avoid a politics of divide and rule from the UK, so bilateral relationships were very limited. Now we must move on to a new phase. However, nothing is settled with Europe as we have seen with the unilateral decision about the Northern Ireland protocol, which complicates things a bit.

Do you see a Frexit as impossible?

I think Brexit has shown us that we need to show people what the benefits are of EU membership and I think we should avoid referendums because people use it as a protest vote.

I think, however, that no one thinks Brexit is a success, though it’s too soon to say. I think there’s a sense we’re stronger together. There is also this strong rivalry between the US and China, and it is hard to measure up as an isolated country.

Would it be different if Marine Le Pen (leader of the hard right-wing party Rassemblement National) became president?

It would be more difficult, but I’m not sure she’d seek to leave. I don’t think the outcome of Brexit is a good advertisement. There is Euroscepticism, but I think the image of Europe in France is better than it was.

You have said that you see the British as dynamic and that they think they will bounce back?

Once again, I think it’s harder alone in the world today. Yes, I think there is a lot of talent in the UK, but how long will it take, I don’t know.

And it’s hard to predict if one day the UK will rejoin the EU?

I think the young are more pro-EU, but if the UK asked to join again after this very difficult break there would also be the question of confidence. Will it want to leave again if there’s a change of government? It’s too soon to say.

I think the Covid-19 crisis is somewhat covering up the difficulties. Later it will be necessary to make clear what consequences are down to Covid and what are due to Brexit. It depends how the UK and EU come out of it economically.

This year, what areas will France and the UK need to work on?

There’s defence above all, where we have a very close cooperation, with exchanges of officers who take part in operations.

There will be things happening in the G7, which the UK is presiding. And bilaterally, we used to have our biggest trade surplus with the UK, whereas we are often in a trade deficit with the rest of the world.

Around 1 3million British people used to visit France each year and there were exchanges between students and researchers, which must continue.

We can’t just cancel all that but we’ll have to find new ways of doing it. Perhaps it will be more the companies and universities that will make agreements between themselves.