Macron couldn’t care less about ‘no-deal’ blame...

... his focus is the EU crown

28 August 2019
By Simon Heffer

One suspects Emmanuel Macron knew exactly why Boris Johnson made him the second (after Angela Merkel) head of government he visited after becoming British prime minister.

It was to ensure Mr Johnson could have someone to blame when – and it looks like when, rather than if – the United Kingdom leaves the European Union without a deal.

Dr Merkel had been described in the British media as being constructive about the British situation, offering Mr Johnson 30 days to find an alternative to the Irish backstop that would be acceptable to the other 27 members of the EU (he won’t).

M. Macron, by contrast, made it clear that the backstop was ‘indispensable’, and there could be no renegotiation of the deal Theresa May secured from Brussels, and which failed three times to get through the House of Commons.

One doubts that M. Macron, if he is given the blame, could care less.

There was an inadequate analysis, after Mr Johnson’s two meetings, of their dynamics.

Dr Merkel may lead the most powerful country in Europe (albeit one that is near recession), but she is, effectively, the past.

M. Macron could plausibly lead France until 2027; in a year or so Dr Merkel will be gone.

He, despite all France’s problems, is the future, and especially so in terms of European leadership.

Unlike Mr Johnson, whose span as prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland may be historically short, M. Macron has no real opposition.

The parties of left and right that have mainly run France during the Fifth Republic are in the tank; the only party that can lay a glove on his La République en Marche!, the Rassemblement National, almost certainly cannot win a presidential election, because of the electoral system.

So M. Macron can speak not just with the authority of his office, but with the authority of the leader of one of the two most powerful states in mainland Europe, and one who is not going anywhere in the foreseeable future.

What should also feed M. Macron’s confidence in his dealings with Mr Johnson is that, in his attitude to European questions, he is entirely consonant with the European Commission and its bureaucracy.

He speaks as he does in the knowledge that the European machine will support him completely in the approach he takes to the British question.

M. Macron intends to be the uncrowned king of Europe when Dr Merkel leaves the stage, just as she is the uncrowned queen; to assume that position he has to defend to the utmost the corporate vision of the future of the Union.

In the context of Mr Johnson and Britain, that entails making no concessions to Britain that might undermine the single market or the customs union that are among the principles at the heart of the union.

But it also means doing nothing to accommodate Britain that might encourage other disaffected countries to think about leaving the EU.

For the EU, to lose one country may be a misfortune, but to lose two would be downright careless – and to lose any more than that could bring the final curtain down on the whole enterprise.

That is expressly something for which M. Macron would not want to bear any responsibility; so being hard and unrelenting with Mr Johnson was not simply a case of the latest manifestation of Anglo-French rivalry, it was a necessary preliminary to the whole future of the European Union, as M. Macron, and the others who most intimately shape the future of the institution, envisage it.

Where this leaves relations between France and Britain in the immediate future is anyone’s guess, not least because it is anyone’s guess who will be the British prime minister by the end of the year.

The most likely outcome of a British general election is another hung parliament.

Even if a much-vaunted government of national unity were to be the outcome of that – and no-one should put money on that – the most likely consequence would be another general election within a few months.

Mr Johnson seemed categorical during his visit to Paris that he wanted to be friends with the French – it would have been idiotic of him to give any other impression.

Any of his likely successors would be likely to be even more fervent in their desire for friendship with what, by then, would be Britain’s former European partners.

The fact is that once Britain has left the EU, it cannot – even if there were to be overwhelming public support for doing so, which at the moment there is not – easily re-join.

At that point Europe, as a net exporter to the UK and with so many shared interests, will simply have to make the best of the new situation. This must be particularly true of France, not just as a close neighbour, but with so many nationals of each country living in the other.

Ways will have to be found to maintain the high levels of free trade that exist between France and the UK; promises that those French people resident and working in the UK will be allowed to carry on permanently will be honoured.

And, indeed, just as French people lived and worked in Britain before 1973, when Britain joined the EU, so they will again – and vice versa.

But what the Elysée must be acutely aware of is that Mr Johnson does not look particularly secure in Downing Street.

It may be hard for his opponents to bring him down in a vote of confidence before Brexit; but the reality of a no-deal departure may change all that.

What France needs to understand most clearly about Britain today is that the country could be about to experience the greatest political turbulence in living memory; and, as such, the exact nature of Britain’s relations with even its closest allies will remain to be settled.

 

Simon Heffer, the renowned political commentator and historian, turns his gaze to French politics. Simon Heffer is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

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