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London (AFP) July 23, 2014
Britain and France are trading accusations of hypocrisy over sanctions against Russia in a row that reveals deeper European divisions on how to react to the MH17 disaster, analysts said Wednesday.
The "Entente Cordiale" entered one of its less cordial phases this week, with Britain slamming France's 1.2 billion euro ($1.6 billion) warship deal with Moscow, and Paris saying London remains a haven for Russian oligarchs.
The row grew Wednesday when a parliamentary report revealed Britain had granted a series of lucrative arms export licences to Russia even as it was criticising its European partners for doing the same.
Experts said the Anglo-French dispute would blow over, but warned it was a symptom of a wider malaise in the European Union as all 28 nations insist the burden of sanctions against Russia must be equally shared.
"We can see tensions in the EU over sanctions, which are inevitable given each country has a different relationship with Russia," Sarah Lain, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London, told AFP.
"France is really against breaking this contract, it would harm French interests a lot more than Russian interests. Then the British parliamentary report has drawn attention to the fact that France is not the only one in Europe who has a defence relationship with Moscow."
Despite US pressure to get tough with Moscow over the downing of the Malaysia Airlines flight over Ukraine, EU foreign ministers on Tuesday agreed only to slightly widen sanctions and look at a possible arms embargo.
But a wider debate about European inaction has degenerated into a Franco-British slanging match, centred on Paris's reluctance to scupper the deal to sell two Mistral helicopter warships to Russia.
President Francois Hollande has said delivery of the first warship will go ahead in October as planned but handing over of the second would depend on "Russia's attitude".
British Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament that "in this country it would be unthinkable to fulfil an order like the one outstanding that the French have" -- as well as criticising Germany and Italy for Russian arms sales.
- 'Dear British friends' -
However, Cameron's comments were too much for Paris.
The leader of Hollande's Socialist party, Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, lashed out at "hypocrites" and said Britain should put its own house in order first by tackling rich Russian allies of Putin who are using the City of London financial district to park their money.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius sarcastically thanked the "very pleasant" British.
"Dear British friends, let's also talk about finance. I was led to believe that there were quite a few Russian oligarchs in London," he said.
Britain found itself open to further claims of hypocrisy when a parliamentary report found that 251 licences were still in place for the sale to Russia of controlled goods worth at least £132 million ($225 million, 167 million euro).
Newspapers in Britain on Wednesday meanwhile called for Cameron's Conservative party to hand back donations from Putin "cronies", including a £160,000 auction bid by a Russian oligarch's wife to play tennis with the prime minister.
Analysts said the row was unlikely to derail increased Franco-British cooperation in recent years, especially in defence, even if it was more out of necessity than love between the two NATO nuclear powers.
In 2010 cash-strapped London and Paris signed the so-called "Entente Frugale" -- a play on the 1904 Entente Cordiale which ended centuries of conflict between the two countries -- to cooperate on a series of defence contracts.
Britain's new foreign minister Philip Hammond has long "strongly supported British-French cooperation", despite being a fierce eurosceptic who opposes any EU role in British defence, Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, told AFP.
Hammond took a softer line than Cameron on the French warship on Tuesday, pointing out that sanctions would apply to "future arms contracts" and so would not affect the Mistral, "which as I understand it are already contractually owned by the Russians."
Lain said both countries had too much to lose from a serious row.
"I don't think people are in a position to cut off their nose to spite their face," said Lain.
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