Oct 29, 2020

France’s Brexit Dilemma

French President Emmanuel Macron has been more clear-sighted on Brexit than most European leaders. But now is the time to back down and compromise.

An illustration of Emmanuel Macron above Montmartre

Emmanuel Macron is the most anglophile president France has ever had. He has given more interviews to the British press than to the German media, and has made entire speeches in English. Campaigning in London for the 2017 French presidential elections, Macron praised the energy of the city. When the BBC’s Andrew Marr during a 2016 interview told Macron “You remind me very much of a young Tony Blair,” Macron grinned. Indeed, Monsieur “Neither left nor right” has read Anthony Giddens, the intellectual father of New Labour’s “Third-Way” politics.

And like most European politicians, Macron implored the British to stay in the European Union ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum. “You are a great country. … We need a strong United Kingdom and you will be much stronger if you decide to remain,” Macron said on British television.

But unlike many, Macron never attached much hope to actually reversing Brexit. And this was for three reasons.

Not Another 2005

First, Macron conceived of Brexit as a mistake, yes. But not as an accident. Thus, one had to accept it.

True, like most European leaders, Macron accused the Leave campaign of demagogy. But the vote was still “a historic alarm signal” for the bloc in his eyes. It showed that the EU has failed to protect the middle class from globalization, Macron argued. The vote thus didn’t puzzle Macron, but confirmed one of his political key convictions: To fend off the nationalists, the EU needed to change profoundly.

Second, Macron is part of the generation of French politicians deeply marked by the 2005 “No” vote in the French referendum on an EU constitution. The price was steep: it gave birth to the narrative of an undemocratic EU and castrated further integration efforts. Even 15 years later, “Frexiters” are at their best in debates when arguing that the 2005 vote was invalidated by the subsequent Lisbon Treaty. Appearing to work toward another Brexit referendum would thus be toxic.

And third, Macron feared a second vote on British membership would put his EU reform plans on hold. Pre the Brexit vote, Brussels hit the mute button and stalled projects that could embolden the Leave campaign. But for Macron, Europe couldn’t afford to lose more time. There are EU critics on the continent too. And from geopolitics to technology the world is changing fast: in his view, Europe needs to wake up and move forward now.

Get It Done

This outlook explains why Macron has consistently pressed London to go ahead with Brexit. To keep up the pressure, he even threatened to veto former British Prime Minster Theresa May’s request to delay the UK’s departure from the EU in March 2019.

This approach did not go down well in other European capitals. But history suggests that Macron was right. Would the EU have agreed to the €750 billion COVID-19 recovery fund if the UK was still a member or a second referendum was imminent? Would his “sovereign Europe” idea and the pivot to a more state-centered EU integration model ever have gotten off the ground?

And if Macron early on pushed to get Brexit done quickly, it was also clear to him what objective the negotiations between the UK and the EU must achieve. Already in April 2016 Macron said “Brexit must have consequences. Otherwise this is the beginning of the [EU’s] dismantling.”

Leaving the EU must have costs for the UK, either in terms of market access or sovereignty.

Otherwise France could follow the UK example. The 2005 vote showed how skeptical many French are towards the EU. This is why Macron celebrates when US banks move jobs from London to Paris. This is why he puts a big EU flag on projects co-financed by the recovery fund. Macron is in a constant struggle to convince the French that it pays to be in the EU.

Positive Agenda

Macron was being honest when he wrote in a letter to the British people the day after the UK eventually left the EU: “I know the feeling—however you voted in 2016—that France was ‘tough’ from the start of the Brexit negotiation. I wanted to defend the existential principles of the way the EU functions: compliance with our rules within the single market …. These are not bureaucratic inflexibilities but the very foundations of the European edifice. But never has France … been driven by a desire for revenge or punishment.”

Macron ended his address to the British people by writing: “The Channel has never managed to separate our destinies; Brexit will not do so, either. At 11.00 p.m. last night we did not say ‘goodbye,’ but an early ‘good morning.’”

And indeed the Élysée has tried to create a positive agenda with the UK. Macron has invested much time in safeguarding the UK-French defense relations. He also proposed setting up a European Council for Security and Defense that would recreate an institutional link to the UK. And ever the grand strategist, Macron has tried to envision a new framework for how Brussels deals with the UK and other close-by non-EU members. The idea of a “core Europe” around the eurozone not only appeals to Paris, as it could reconcile a deepening of the union with enlargement. It would also sideline—ah non, pardon—create a space for less integration-friendly countries, including the UK.

But both plans got nowhere. On defense, because the EU, including Macron, shut down May’s attempt to obtain economic concessions in return for security cooperation. On “core Europe,” because Chancellor Angela Merkel fears it would weaken Germany’s role as a balancing power and doesn’t want the EU’s new members to once again be pushed to the periphery.

Real Test

But the real Brexit test for Macron is only coming now. The stand-off over fish is the hot button issue that is forcing him into contradictions. The same president who wants Brexit to have consequences for the UK, doesn’t want them for his own people.

And as the negotiations narrow toward level playing field versus fish, Macron is faced with a classic dilemma between short-term national interests versus long-term European interests. Electorally, access to UK waters for the fisherman in France’s north is key. Paris fears that a clear felling could fuel the far-left’s and nationalists’ narrative of blue-collar jobs being sacrificed on the EU’s altar. For Europe as a whole and Macron’s vision of an EU imposing its will on globalization, ensuring a level playing field with the UK is more important, but won’t win him any votes.

The EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier is urging Paris to cede on fish to get the UK moving on level playing field. But Macron still hopes that the brutal asymmetry in the negotiations means he won’t have to face this dilemma. He is thus striking power poses, saying after the last European Council, “Whatever British citizens were told during the vote, they need the European Single Market. They are much more dependent on us than we are on them.”

Right. But international negotiations are a function of domestic politics as much as of international power relations. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson can’t afford to sacrifice the Scottish Brexit-voting fisherman if he wants to keep the UK together. And besides, is Macron’s renewed “no deal” threat really credible? If there is no agreement, French fisherman go away empty-handed. And Macron is left with a big problem for the next election in 2022. Time to compromise.

Joseph de Weck is a journalist and historian based in Paris. He consults on geopolitical and macroeconomic risk and writes the monthly Pariscope column for INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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