Irish Times view on Anglo-French ‘partnership’: what’s in a word?

‘Our friends in Europe’ is a Tory formula too often used as a prelude to blaming the EU

Words matter, and Wednesday's use by Boris Johnson of the description "partners" to describe what he saw as French obligations was another sign that the British prime minister does not understand how the relationship has moved on. The cross-Channel blow-up on Friday over his open letter was hardly surprising.

“Partnership” implies a common project, a mutuality of respect, of obligations, with a degree of equality between the parties. In business it suggests a share in decision-making; in marriage, a formal binding commitment. On the international stage it suggests at least a common willingness to honour treaties signed together.

“Our friends in Europe” is a Tory formula also too often used as a prelude to blaming EU members for woes that Britain has brought upon itself. A hint of condescension, perhaps of sneering. Yesterday British transport secretary Grant Shapps said Johnson had made his latest proposals in “good faith” and asked “our French friends” to reconsider their decision to exclude Home Secretary Priti Patel from an emergency meeting of EU interior ministers. Following the Channel deaths on Wednesday, Johnson had weighed in on “our partners” by saying the incident showed efforts to stop migrants leaving haven’t been enough and there had been difficulties in getting the French to take action.

Could Johnson not have used alternative formulations that might have more accurately reflected the nuances of a complex and changed relationship? Allies, perhaps, in a geostrategic sense; neighbours, a neutral geographic description; even former partners. But “partners”? A formulation that well described EU membership before Johnson advocated the decision to leave the EU and to “take back control”. Was that not the whole point of Brexit? But maybe the prime minister misspoke, as he is wont to do. How can we tell?


The tone of his open letter to France's President Emmanuel Macron, which has caused such offence, similarly reflects that of one who believes he has a partner's right to make demands. Not any more.