A Brexit would hurt France, but it's doing little to stop it | Simon Heffer

The renowned political commentator and historian, turns his gaze to French politics

6 May 2016
By Simon Heffer

FRANCE has enough of its own problems and, ostensibly, is not in a ferment about whether or not it should be in the European Union – though how long the voice of the Front National on that question, and indeed that of hard-left anti-austerity elements in French politics, will be silenced is an interesting point. But it would be wise for France to think for a moment how it would be affected by a UK decision to leave the EU – which might happen if, as expected, the UK votes on the matter in a referendum on June 23.

In Britain, the debate has inevitably been focused on what leaving the EU will mean for Britain: some in the pro-EU camp have been speculating, usually quite wildly, about how the nation would survive outside.

It might be intelligent for the French, and others, to turn the question round: how would the EU survive if a country as substantial as Britain pulled out? It has an eighth of the EU’s total population and is its second largest state. It contributes a net £8.5bn a year to the club. But these are largely irrelevant considerations. What the UK leaving would also do would be to send a signal to secessionist movements all over Europe that they don’t have to put up with the EU any more either if they don’t want to.

I have never thought the consequences of the UK leaving would be catastrophic for the UK.

The idea that Louis Vuitton, Renault, Pol Roger or Château Haut-Brion are going to telephone the Department of Trade in London on the day after a Brexit and announce that they are no longer going to sell their goods into the UK market is preposterous. Nor, of course, will BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Bosch, Zanussi, Pilsner or
any firm from other European countries that sells in the UK.

The UK had a net trade deficit with the EU of £59 billion in 2015, according to official parliamentary figures, so the EU needs the UK more than the UK needs the EU.

Readers of the Connexion may worry about their own status if Britain becomes a non-EU country. Thousands of Britons lived in France before 1973 – from the Duke of Windsor, Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene downwards – and huge numbers would continue to do so after a Brexit. 

France gains enormously from Britons buying property and spending money in France, and in many rural locations Britons have injected new life into their communities. The idea that France might impose visa or property-ownership restrictions on Britons is nonsense, not least because of the effect it would have on the half-million or so French who live in London. I would expect all sorts of bilateral agreements to be agreed between France and the UK after a Brexit, not least because it would be so palpably in the interests of France to do so.

But the wider question of the EU is a thornier one. Those in France hoping for a Brexit – and the spirit of General de Gaulle, in whose lifetime Britain was not permitted to enter, lives on in many hearts – entertain the fantasy that Paris could become the financial centre of the EU. It won’t, for three reasons.

First, many trades will continue to be done in London because of the comparative cheapness and efficiency of the London markets, and their superior access
to international non-EU markets.

Second, were anywhere to supplant London it would be Frankfurt.

Third, the penal tax regime that M Hollande has used to bring France to its knees since 2012 and that has driven hundreds of thousands of France’s brightest
and best people to work abroad, notably in London, would have to be dramatically revised if anyone were to be encouraged to do business in Paris – and it won’t be only so long as he is in office. Even when he goes, the damage will take years to undo.

Yet the real worry for the French must be for the future of the EU itself. It would suddenly become poorer if Britain left, putting an immediate burden on supposedly richer countries such as France.

Many in France whose opposition to or distrust of the EU has remained latent would find their feelings awakened by this move, and add to the momentum in France, drummed up by Marine Le Pen, to get out too. This would be an extra nightmare for any French president to handle and, if Brexit is a fact by the time of next year’s presidential election, could feature as a strong theme in the campaign. If Britain has gone, Mme Le Pen has a much more credible base from which to argue that she could take France out too.

Other countries whose economies are in far worse shape even than France’s – Greece, Spain and Portugal for example – could start to campaign to leave.

Germany, on whom additional burdens would fall, could find the undercurrent of euroscepticism there that has created the AFD party suddenly become a current, or even an overcurrent. Indeed, the idea that a British departure would not spark a panic-stricken outbreak of fear and loathing in Brussels and among European heads of government is too far-fetched as to be worth debating. It would look like a bear-garden, with the bears on amphetamines.

Most of the running in persuading Britain to stay has come from Angela Merkel. French leaders have been remarkably silent. Perhaps they understand how angry it makes the British to see foreigners trying to influence their politics; or perhaps they think France would be genuinely better off without Britain. I don’t think France realises how heavily dependent it is, especially in terms of its agriculture, on the EU. If Brexit happens and the EU reacts as I expect, France may soon find out.

Simon Heffer is also a columnist
for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

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