Plans to build a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset suffered a surprise setback on Friday after the Government said it wanted to ‘review’ the decision before it gave the go-ahead. But what are EDF – the French company which had approved funding for the project – and the French press making of the Hinkley hold-up?
With the Brexit vote having tested Franco-British relations somewhat in recent weeks, Theresa May’s decision to review the building of Britain’s first new nuclear power plant in two decades isn’t helping matters – with the French press reacting with consternation to the delay.
France 24 reports that senior EDF executives were planning to uncork the champagne on Friday in a celebration that was hastily cancelled following the government’s surprise announcement. The Paris-based broadcaster suggested that Theresa May’s wariness about Chinese investment was the reason for the delay. It also points out that the move emphasises a break away from David Cameron and George Osborne’s ‘accommodative policy’ towards the Chinese. But France 24 also suggests there may be an ulterior motive behind the Hinkley review, suggesting that Theresa May could be taking Hinkley Point ‘hostage’ ahead of Britain’s negotiation with the EU.
EDF believes the project will be highly profitable and the French government is keen to bolster the French nuclear industry, giving the French press cause to speculate that Theresa May could be hoping that Paris will be ‘more open’ in negotiations in order to ensure that Hinkley Point goes ahead. But the French finance minister, Emmanuel Macron, is quoted as saying Britain’s pressing energy crisis means a delay can’t go on for long.
The French government’s determination for Hinkley to get the green light is also reflected in France’s most popular newspaper, Le Monde. The paper reports that the project is viewed as essential in ‘giving impetus’ to the ‘aching’ French nuclear industry. Hinkley Point would certainly be a welcome boost, as recent French nuclear projects in Finland and Flamanville have been plagued by overspending and major technical difficulties. But reflecting on the precarious nature of such projects, Le Monde’s editorial also urges caution. Drawing parallels between Hinkley and the Panama Canal, Concorde and the Eurotunnel, the newspaper warns that although big projects are ‘loved by the French’, they can be ‘ruinous’. Furthermore, the editorial warns that Franco-British relations have become uncertain as the UK looks to extricate itself from the European Union.
Le Figaro notes a contrast between Theresa May’s insistence that post-Brexit Britain remains open for business and her reluctance to approve the £18bn Hinkley Point project. The newspaper does, however, state that May did stress that she would be willing to defend strategic British sectors against foreign capital if necessary. However, it seems more likely that the national security implications of the project are keeping Mrs May awake at night. Le Figaro also quotes Theresa May’s joint chief of staff, Nick Timothy, who previously warned that the project would give the Chinese state the ability to block Britain’s energy production.