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Sarkozy and Cameron ties questioned after euro row

As Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel work closely to overcome the eurozone crisis, France and the UK’s leaders seem increasingly at odds. But there may be more to the recent cross-channel bickering than differences over the euro.


France and the United Kingdom were at odds on Thursday evening after British Prime Minister David Cameron opted out of a new EU treaty championed by France’s Nicolas Sarkozy. The conflicting stances presented by the two leaders in Brussels followed a reportedly contentious disagreement behind closed doors, fuelling speculation that the euro has poisoned ties between the two men.

“I was told it was a rather intense showdown between Cameron and Sarkozy, but I have not seen any leaks on what was actually said,” Christophe Robeet, France 24 European Affairs Editor, said of the spat. “We have a good idea of what the exchange was probably about. Cameron came to Brussels with demands and Sarkozy and Merkel said 'No way'. It was not cordial.”

In front of the press, Cameron said the new treaty, meant to impose stricter fiscal discipline on EU member states, went against UK interests. More than ever, the widening gap between London and Paris stood in contrast with the political consensus on display between Paris and Berlin.

Once triumphant allies during the Libyan war, Cameron and Sarkozy have clashed twice in the last six weeks. On October 23, the two leaders butted heads on the sidelines of an EU summit, with Sarkozy reportedly telling Cameron to stop meddling in eurozone affairs, according to the British press.

“It’s really the euro that has spoiled their relationship. They used to get on very well,” Robeet said from the EU summit in Brussels. “There is a lot of irritation. Sarkozy is telling Cameron 'Don’t interfere with us and don’t make us look weak'. That’s the bottom line.”

According to observers on both sides of the English Channel, however, Britain’s decision not to enter a new EU treaty was highly predictable -- especially to Cameron and Sarkozy, who met in Paris one week ago precisely to discuss the summit.

Some of the animosity exhibited between the two leaders in Brussels, observers say, could actually be working to each other's advantage in thier respective homelands.

Convenient foes?

According to the French daily Le Figaro, Cameron remains grateful to Sarkozy for lending him a helicopter last year to fly to the bedside of his dying father. Their relationship has since been bolstered by the military victory in Libya and diplomatic solidarity over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“Claims of a breakdown in the relationship between Sarkozy and Cameron are exaggerated,” said Benoit Gomis, an expert in cross-Channel diplomacy at the Chatham House research centre in London. “The military cooperation treaty signed in November 2010 was driven to a great extent by the personal relationship between the two men, and it’s this relationship that has since sustained the treaty.”

Writing in the Nouvel Observateur weekly, French journalist Bruno Roger-Petit has also questioned the apparent chill in the Franco-British partnership. For him, Sarkozy’s entourage has encouraged rumours about the clash in order to boost the president’s standing among French voters.

Sarkozy, who is hoping to win re-election in May, needs an external enemy to display his leadership qualities, according to Roger-Petit. “Germanophobia is forbidden, but visibly, Anglophobia, if we can use this term, is now the trend,” the journalist wrote on Friday.

Chatham House’s Gomis agreed that Sarkozy and Cameron’s public disagreement over the EU has helped their respective images at home. “Adopting this position, as the leader who saves the euro despite British opposition, is very interesting for Sarkozy ahead of elections,” Gomis said.

In October, Cameron suffered the largest rebellion of his premiership when 79 Conservative Party lawmakers voted in favour of a referendum on Britain's relationship with Europe. “Cameron is now seen as someone who sticks to promises. He said there would be no more transfer of power [from London] to Brussels, and he has stuck to his guns,” added Gomis.

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