President Macron should realise it’s in his interests to facilitate a quick and amicable clean-break Brexit

President Macron should realise it’s in his interests to facilitate a quick and amicable clean-break Brexit

When Boris Johnson addressed the House of Commons as Prime Minister for the first time last month, the scene from a packed Parliament was broadcast to France. No viewer could have room for doubt: the terms of the EU Withdrawal Agreement were, as the French subtitles put it, ‘inacceptables’. ‘No country that values its independence,’ they were told, ‘could agree to a treaty which signed away our economic independence and self government as this backstop does…’

Would their President, Emmanuel Macron, the most hard-line amongst the EU27 leaders on Brexit, treat it as a call to arms to defend the deal reached behind closed doors with Theresa May? Or would it signal that he and the script must change course ?

Macron is undecided. Shrewd, ambitious and ruthless, he ditched François Hollande – his predecessor, patron and friend – outgunning him to run as President, leapfrogging over the heir apparent, Manuel Valls, and the ruling Socialist Party. He built the Blairite, pro-European and (by French lights) economically liberal ‘En Marche’ movement which won a majority of seats at the 2017 election, forming a government reinforced by deputies from rival parties – the Prime Minister a member of the Republicans, the Interior minister, a Socialist.

At home he set out to consolidate his leadership of the Hexagon by dividing the fragmented opposition parties on the centre-right, the left, and Marine Le Pen’s Front National, and forming a centrist coalition. Next he planned to seize the leadership of Europe when Angela Merkel bows out and bring full integration to the EU, with France restored to its rightful place at its head – a project now all the more urgent if he is to re-establish his authority at home, damaged by a year of scandals, ministerial resignations and pitched battles with the gilet jaunes on the streets of Paris and nationwide protests across rural départements, as La France Profonde rejected his regime.

Brexit presents an obstacle to these plans. Macron has two options. The first is that he could insist the Withdrawal Agreement must stand. But that would be rejected by the UK, followed by a stand-off and a UK no-deal exit on 31st October, followed in turn by uncertainty over UK-EU trade and years of wrangling as the UK, bolstered by newly-signed bilateral free trade deals, sought other suppliers, found other markets and made other allies.

Alternatively, he could help the EU to recognise the game is up, the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be re-opened, and the fantasy of a neutered UK economy under the EU Customs Union and related law is unlikely to be realised. Then he could become the EU’s de facto leader, to agree the principle of free trade between the UK and EU27 and on that basis agree a standstill with no tariffs and, since the UK is leaving with the same rules as the EU, no new non-tariff barriers.

Neither option was mentioned as he congratulated Johnson outside the Elysée Palace and looked to working together on the future. Rather, with the new Commission President Ursula von der Leyen standing by his side, he announced his vision of economic and social Europe regenerated for the future. The new focus will be on a green pact, social convergence and economic regeneration, but the structure will be unchanged – run centrally by Brussels in line with the French model; the means protectionist, inflexible, unionised and corporate – with a tightly structured labour market, in which big government backs the winners.

If Macron is to sidestep Brexit, he must accept that the UK will differ, that it will compete and win as often as not on innovation, competition, efficiency and quality in an economy kept on its toes by the newcomer challenger. By contrast, the French and now Franco-German economy that dominates the EU has won through state central planning, by backing winners, by eliminating the challengers, to merge into bilateral giants with state backing. French engineering, energy, aeronautical, science and technology has its fair share of Franco-German mergers, the smaller challengers eliminated or absorbed into ever bigger industries.

That model has brought us the Franco-German winners, Airbus, Siemens-Alstom, Aventis (a French pharmaceutical company founded through the merger of German and French companies with French government backing). From that model there is no going back, only the slow integration of Spanish, Italian, North European and eventually other Southern and Eastern European companies, and potentially ultimate self-destruction in a highly competitive global system where the nimble, the innovative and the lean have made the world their market.

If Macron accepts that the Withdrawal Agreement is now an archival curiosity, he can rapidly rid the EU of its troublesome member and further his own – and France’s – interests.

But he could do better and take the lead, not just in forging the integrated EU on which he has set his sights, but reshaping the alliance with the UK, one that has weathered centuries of storms, and resurfaced after bitter conflicts, ever since William of Normandy defeated the English at Hastings. The UK will follow its own star.

But in its new Prime Minister, who has understood better than most predecessors since the 1940s the nature of Britain’s international interests and how best to pursue them, Macron will find an able, supportive NATO ally, a friendly economic rival and a more reflective, intelligent and open-minded British leader than any since the 1990s.

It is no accident that France24, the state-owned TV news channel, suggested in its reports that M. Macron, more than any other EU leader, is keen to see Britain leave with No Deal. If, as is likely, the EU27 refuse to re-open the Withdrawal Agreement and the UK refuses to pass it, the way is open for the future on which Macron dwells by shelving the May deal.

Instead he could focus on future UK-EU free trade, a standstill agreement with neither tariffs nor barriers meanwhile, and the de-coupling of the UK from the integrated Europe on which the President of France has set his sights.