This week European leaders will meet in solemn conclave, with and without Prime Minister Theresa May, to determine whether or not to extend the U.K.’s membership of the European Union and, if so, for how long. Brits have until recently paid relatively little attention to this occasion since it was generally agreed that the other EU members wanted the Brits to stay in. All doubts were on the British side, where a heated debate now seems to be moving towards a cross-party Con–Lab agreement to strike a pretend Brexit that would keep Britain inside most of the EU’s economic institutions, regulations, and tariffs for an indefinite period. There’s a lot to play for still — half the Tory party hates May’s deal — but for the moment the ball is in the court of Brussels.
And for the first time, one of the Europeans may say no. Not just any old European either, but the French president, Emmanuel Macron.
The actual choice before the European Council asks should Britain be allowed to remain in the EU for a short time (i.e., until June 30) ,to sign off on May’s withdrawal deal or nearest equivalent; or a long time (another year or even longer), to enable a different deal to be negotiated; or no time at all, being shown the door on Friday. All Europeans except Macron favor some version of the first two options. If you’re interested in such matters, Wolfgang Munchau in today’s FT has an informative analysis that suggests that if Corbyn and May can agree on the general principles of leaving the EU, then the good ship BRINO (Brexit in Name Only) can sail between the Scylla of No Deal and the Charybdis of Another Referendum to reach an agreed departure date in December. Macron, however, is reportedly tired of these endless discussions and skeptical that the Brits will ever agree on a bipartisan deal that has public support and a chance of survival. He is thinking of exercising the French veto to prevent any extension at all, and so in effect bringing about a no-deal Brexit from outside.
That would delight the U.K. Brexiteers, horrify May and Remainers covert and overt, effectively end Britain’s long-running political crisis over Brexit, and put everyone in Britain on emergency stations to keep the roads busy, the ports open, and goods flowing in and out of the U.K. All that sounds fine to me and, according to the latest polls, to a modest majority of the Brits. Many would hail Macron as their country’s liberators. But they don’t vote in French elections. So the question is: Why would that be good for France and for Macron?
For a number of reasons, both of raison d’état and of personal interest. For matters of state, a no deal Brexit (actually, one under the trading rules of the World Trade Organization) would remove Britain from the counsels of the EU where it has been a constant obstacle to France’s plans for greater European integration. From the viewpoint of Paris, the Brits always want to say no or at least to opt out. It would also strengthen France’s position in relation to Germany. Under almost all chancellors, Germany wants to avoid rows or even serious differences with Paris. So they hide behind the Brits when France wants to integrate a step too far or dip EU hands into the German treasury. With Britain no longer available as a shield, the Germans will have to conciliate Paris more — and that in turn would add power to the “Franco-German locomotive” as the driver of Euro-policies. It would sweep away one or two serious current problems attendant upon Brexit: If Britain is out, it won’t be electing any Eurosceptic MPs in the forthcoming European parliamentary elections to add to those annoyingly emerging from Central Europe, Spain, and Italy. Above all, it would be a bold and dramatic move, raising Macron’s leadership profile and inviting comparison between him and General de Gaulle, who vetoed U.K. entry into the European Community back in the 1960s. For all these reasons it would elevate Macron’s political image as the man who will revive Europe after years of drift by ejecting the obstructive Brits.
Of course, there are arguments on the other side too. Getting rid of the Brits without extracting the exit payment of 39 billion pounds would be expensive, no doubt about it, and inconvenient when France wants Europe to spend more and the Germans are reluctant to sign the checks. It would seem uncollegial too, not the act of a “good European,” and annoy almost everyone else round the table, since the Brits are a heavy net contributor to EU funds while most of the other 27 are net recipients. Inevitably too, there would be some disruption of trade — even if Macron could console himself that many of the scare stories about such things were composed on his instructions. And though Macron likes the limelight, he would come under serious attack by two forces that have been among his strongest supporters — the Brussels Eurocracy and bien-pensant liberal opinion that regards Brexit as the revival of a sinister and toxic nationalism that must be crushed.
Both sets of opposite reasons are quite well-balanced from Macron’s standpoint. Is there perhaps some middle way that he could take to get the benefit of both worlds? Maybe he should recollect how General de Gaulle administered the blow to Harold Macmillan’s hopes of European entry. His famous speech promising a veto on the U.K.’s EU membership, far from being hostile to the Brits, was full of admiration for them. De Gaulle had fought many quarrels with Britain and Churchill when he had been their guest and ally from the Fall of France to its Liberation. He felt much resentment at the slights administered to him by Churchill (and, to a greater extent, by Roosevelt). But he never forgot his debt to them. And when he delivered his speech to France on the eve of D-Day (which, to his incandescent anger, he had only just been told about), he set aside all resentments, paid an eloquent tribute to his hosts, and proclaimed how fitting it was that the liberation of the continent should be launched from “this ancient citadel of freedom.” There were echoes of that generosity and admiration in his speech saying No to Britain 20 years later.
Macron himself is surely capable of exercising a veto in a speech suffused with generosity and admiration. It’s not hard to imagine how it might go . . . “We have seen in the last three years how England has not been able to commit its heart fully to Europe . . . That great maritime people feels again and perhaps forever the call of the open seas . . . And who is to say they are wrong, that they mistake their own national destiny . . . for we too have seen that with all their talents and virtues, they are a bad fit for Europe and our continental civilization of perhaps excessive order . . . Let them set sail for the world again, therefore, in adventures that have served them so well in the past . . . but let also say to them: Part of you belongs to Europe too . . . and Europe will never forget that . . .”
There wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house, except perhaps for Theresa May’s.
If Macron were to make such a speech, I think it would have a vast impact emotionally. It would wipe the slate clean of the animosities and bitterness that have been stirred up by the Brexit negotiations. And it would respect the political realities of Britain’s relationship with Europe. The small print could be somewhat less generous: Britain would have ten/five years to make a commitment to renew its EU membership, and in return that renewal could be easily managed, all but automatic. There would, however, be a codicil: The U.K. would have to rejoin Europe as it had developed in the intervening period. It would be a win–win bet for Macron (from his point of view). If the U.K. remained outside, Europe would be a dual-monarchy empire, with a French president and a German chancellor; if the U.K. rejoined, it would be rejoining a different EU shaped by French policy in the meantime.
In order to pull off that coup, Macron would need to confront his supporters as de Gaulle confronted his supporters over Algeria. De Gaulle could do that because he was a great man who had already taken on half the world (more than half if you include his allies) and won triumphantly. I doubt that Macron is a great man and therefore I doubt he will use his veto to grant the Brits a no-deal Bexit . But I would love to be proved wrong.
Editor’s note: The version of this post published yesterday was inadvertently truncated.