Nicola Sturgeon focuses on Auld Alliance to secure EU future

Consul General Emmanuel Cocher watches as Sturgeon signs a book of condolence after the Paris terrorist attacks last November. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Consul General Emmanuel Cocher watches as Sturgeon signs a book of condolence after the Paris terrorist attacks last November. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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By some accounts, it is the oldest alliance in history. Some even argue that it endures to this day, but with the shadow of Brexit hanging over the Auld Alliance, what is the future for the 700-year-old diplomatic relationship between Scotland and France?

Last week, the UK’s exit from the EU soured the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France, with French politicians, including former president Nicolas Sarkozy, suggesting the Le Touquet agreement that governs border arrangements at Calais should be revisited.

In Scotland, however, it has been suggested that reviving the Auld Alliance could be part of Nicola Sturgeon’s rearguard campaign to keep Scotland in the EU in spite of June’s referendum result.

Within hours of the Brexit result, the First Minister pledged to “take all possible steps and explore all options… to secure our continuing place in the EU and in the single market in particular”. To that end, she has embarked on a mission to continental capitals to build goodwill for an unlikely deal that would preserve the country’s EU membership.

Thanks to voters’ show of faith in Europe, doors have opened that during the 2014 independence campaign were slammed shut by governments and EU functionaries fearful of encouraging a nationalist movement and risking splitting a member state.

In the chaotic aftermath of the Brexit result, those concerns have eased, and Sturgeon was welcomed to Brussels by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz –although not by Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council of member state governments.

At the time, those talks were disavowed by the governments of Spain, Germany and France. However, Sturgeon then popped up in Berlin for a surprise meeting with Germany’s Europe minister, Michael Roth.

The visit doesn’t support over-interpretation as a tacit blessing from European matriarch Angela Merkel for Scotland’s aspirations. Roth is a member of the Social Democratic Party, the junior partner in Merkel’s coalition, and Germany is entering an election year where Brexit will feature heavily on the campaign trail.

But Scotland on Sunday understands that discussions have been held with civil servants in the Scottish and French governments about the possibility of a similar encounter between the First Minister and Europe minister Harlem Désir. Both governments said no meeting was currently planned, but the Scottish Government confirmed it was reaching out to EU partners.

“Scotland enjoys long historicities with France and we look forward to that relationship developing still further in the years ahead,” a Scottish Government spokesman said. “We have made clear we are looking at all possible options to protect our place in Europe”

If a meeting does take place, it would be significant not just because Paris and Berlin are the anchor points of the European axis. France has particular reasons to be wary of courting the Scottish Government – it has its own nationalist movements in the Basque country and Corsica to contend with.

There may even be some French civil servants who remember how encouragement of overseas forays by the nationalist provincial government of Quebec in the 1970s and 1980s soured relations with Canada.

Whether it takes place or not, the suggestion Scottish civil servants are actively engaged in what some consider a futile exercise will prompt criticism at home from political opponents who believe Sturgeon should accept the EU referendum result and focus on governing Scotland.

So can the spirit of the Auld Alliance be reanimated and have an impact at the Brussels negotiating table?

As befits an ancient alliance, you can read its history in the stones of Paris and Edinburgh. In the Quartier Saint-Victor stands a monument to its beginnings: the Collège des Écossais, founded by an act of parliament by order of the King of France in 1325.

A more recent expression of the alliance is commemorated in the Scottish capital, on an otherwise unremarkable Georgian property at 28 Regent Terrace. The building bears a plaque commemorating its inauguration as the Scottish Free French House by General Charles de Gaulle.

Originally used by French soldiers training in Scotland during the Second World War for the eventual liberation of their homeland, it remains the official residence of the French consul general in Edinburgh. The man who lives there today is Emmanuel Cocher, who is charged with promoting cultural and educational links between the two countries.

“There’s sympathy and openness, that’s for sure,” he says of the French attitude towards Scotland, but he has doubts about the depth of awareness in his home country of the historic links between the countries.

The Auld Alliance, he says, is “not as common a man-in-the-street reference as it is in Scotland”, and those in France watching developments in the UK over the summer are doing so with the detachment of an observer. “They don’t want to interfere,”he says.

Florence Faucher is one of those watching events with great interest. She is a professor at the Centre for European Studies at “Sciences Po”, the Paris Institute of Political Studies that has been the traditional training ground for French politicians, including the last four presidents. Prof Faucher coordinates a joint masters in European Affairs between Sciences Po and the LSE, and has previously taught at Stirling University.

“I think the French tend to be quite fond of Scotland,” she says. “There might be a great deal of sympathy with Scotland because of the Auld Alliance, because of strong links in the past, and the fact that Scotland voted to remain.”

Politically, however, support for Scotland may still be impossible. “Willingness to feel sorry for Scotland, for risking to be dragged out of the EU, may be quite different from the position that is later officially taken,” she says. In the barter economy of European politics, good relations with Spain may still take precedence.

Despite living here for over 20 years, Fred Berkmiller steers clear of offering his own view on Scotland’s place in the UK and Europe. The French chef, who runs the L’escargot bleu and L’escargot blanc restaurants in Edinburgh, as well as a new wine bar opened last year, still sees himself as a foreigner.

“I’m one of those that believes that I shouldn’t have a say in the future of Scotland, because I wasn’t born in Scotland,” he says. But he has huge respect for the ties that bind Scotland and France. “We serve 1,200 meals a week,” says Berkmiller. “It is on a daily basis that people mention those links between France and Scotland – food, history, the past, the wars, sport. It leads me to believe, whatever happens, there will always be that strong link.”

Harking back to the sentiment that inspired the Auld Alliance, Berkmiller adds: “Many would be happy to see England leave Europe, and Scotland stay.”

Much more than culture, religion, or royal blood, that was the spirit of the Auld Alliance – the enemy of my enemy is my friend. With Europe stung by the UK’s rejection, can Scotland profit from anti-English resentment?

Last week, the Élysée Palace quickly stamped out talk that the “Jungle” migrant camp could be pushed across the Channel into England, but with elections also being held in France in 2017, and the far right on the rise, tough rhetoric will only grow. French president François Hollande was reported to have compared his early talks with Theresa May to the frosty relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand.

That rhetoric may not have any impact on Brexit talks, however. “The posturing during electoral campaigns can be quite different,” says Prof Faucher.

Christophe Premat, an MP from Hollande’s ruling Socialist Party, also stresses that the French “don’t want to punish the UK”.

Premat, who under France’s unusual electoral system for expatriates has a constituency spanning Northern Europe from Ireland to Scandinavia, says the priority is to “make sure that we have a new agenda for relations between the UK and Europe after Brexit”.

He doesn’t reject the possibility of talks between Sturgeon and his government out of hand. “I think it’s necessary to have all the points of view when we take the important decisions,” he says. However, any such discussions would be an “informal” exchange in search of “common views”.

“There is sympathy, sure, but if we try to have a different outcome for Scotland, that could be seen as trying to divide the United Kingdom.”

Speaking to Scotland on Sunday from the airport at Manchester, where he has been meeting French citizens and businesses concerned about the Brexit vote, he says he has been fielding questions all summer in a series of open sessions for constituents – 140,000 in the UK, of whom roughly 8,000 live in Scotland.

“There are two kinds of questions,” he says. “What should I do, should I stay here in the UK, what will my status be, should I take British citizenship? There are many practical questions. Then you have this feeling of offence. That people who have been here for as much as 30 or 35 years, who feel frustrated because they couldn’t take part in the referendum, take it as a negative message towards them.”

The latter phenomenon is one Cocher has encountered, too. “The main element at the moment is psychological,” he says, pointing out that in practical terms, nothing has changed for French citizens yet. But many feel they have a cloud hanging over them. “Once you’re unhappy, you may leave for all sorts of reasons,” says Cocher.

Even Berkmiller admits that some among the French community in Scotland “are really concerned”. “Since I’ve been in the UK, we’ve seen a couple of recessions,” he says. “We’ve seen the pound weak, the pound strong. We just have to adapt. I can’t say I’m not concerned. But whatever happens, I’ll have to live with it.” He adds: “If we’re not happy, we’ll have to leave.”