After years in the doldrums, the European project has received a shot in the arm from the French president, Emmanuel Macron. Not content with defeating the staunchly Eurosceptic Marine Le Pen in the 2017 presidential election, he went on to lay out his vision for the future of Europe in two major speeches delivered in September, at the Acropolis and the Sorbonne.
Macron has emerged as a key leader in the EU, what with German chancellor Angela Merkel still mired in a post-electoral hangover, Spain embroiled in the Catalan issue, Italy waiting for tricky new elections, and some eastern European countries in open conflict with Brussels. The contrast with the British prime minister, Theresa May, increasingly sidelined in the EU since the Brexit vote, could not be any greater.
Their meeting for the 35th Franco-British summit on January 18 was therefore the perfect opportunity to see where a departing Britain might fit in Macron’s vision for Europe.
Warning against the perils of nationalism and fragmentation, Macron has set out to rekindle the European idea and woo back wary EU citizens. He has called for more Europe, through the strengthening of a Eurozone equipped with its own budget and finance minister, the launching of new common policies in a wide range of areas, including defence, and through an active involvement of all citizens.
This new Europe is to be based on differing levels of integration, with a very integrated inner core led by France and Germany, down to looser forms of collaboration. During his visit to Sandhurst Military Academy, he said that Britain, in its post-Brexit incarnation, “may one day find its place again”.
Sacrosanct single market
Brexit, absent from the official agenda, burst onto the scene during the press conference, when Macron bluntly explained that Britain would not be allowed full access to the single market. By branding the idea of a special Brexit deal as pure hypocrisy and giving Britain the choice between a Norway deal, which includes freedom of movement and paying into the EU budget, or a Canada-style agreement, which excludes services, he put to bed any notion that Britain could have its famous cake and eat it.
He reiterated this in a subsequent BBC interview, saying Britain would get no special access to the single market unless it accepted all its conditions.
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This should not have come as a shock, not just because the EU has been drumming the same message but also because Macron has been holding this line ever since the Brexit vote. Many in Britain have argued that France is simply acting in a mercenary way and only wants to lure business away from the UK. This might be true but this argument misses the point.
Considering his vision for Europe, preserving the integrity of the single market makes total sense. Allowing a third country to benefit from the same advantages as member states without being subjected to the same rules would not only send the wrong message to the rest of Europe but it would wreck a single market that he sees as “very much the heart of the EU”. Once the heart is stabbed, further integration becomes virtually impossible. Macron’s position, far from being hardline, is wholly logical and consistent with his desire for a more integrated EU.
On the outside
In the future, bilateral talks between France and the UK – apart from the usual consensual areas such as cultural exchanges – will be restricted to topics that lie outside the core of the EU remit, such as defence and foreign policy. And it just happens that in both areas France and Britain have a lot in common.
There is no doubt that Macron’s pan-European defence initiative cannot function without Britain. Together, Britain and France represent almost half of all the spending on defence in the EU and, of course, they both possess nuclear weapons.
It is true that Britain has always favoured NATO over any European schemes – but US president Donald Trump is now prevaricating over the organisation’s future. With the ever increasing costs of maintaining a well equipped army – and with the strong co-operation between the two countries since the 2010 Lancaster treaty – Britain too has an incentive to continue cooperating. At the summit, Macron hinted that the UK might even take part in future European defence initiatives.
Both countries are also keen to continue their close cooperation over anti-terrorism matters and both are members of the UN Security Council. These shared interests probably explain why Macron did not tear up the Le Touquet agreement that enables Britain to carry out immigration checks on French soil. The threat of moving the border back to Dover certainly played a part in convincing Britain to pay more to secure the border in Calais, but acting on it would have damaged the highly valued corporation in defence and foreign policy.
These bilateral talks fit in very much with Macron’s vision, with Britain as part of the outermost circle of European integration. Britain is likely to be a third country that won’t fashion the policies of the core any more, but with whom close links will be maintained in areas of mutual interest.
Brexit, in particular its soft variety, could bring the best of both worlds for France: more integration in the EU without the UK constantly putting a brake on, and a close relationship in defence. That would define France as a key power, playing a central role in shaping the EU along with Germany, all the while enjoying the clout of its military power, bolstered by a close co-operation with Britain, outside Europe.
Macron has a clear vision for Europe and Britain has a place in it, albeit a much diminished one. But many obstacles lie ahead, not least convincing a European public left exhausted by the recent crises that have engulfed the EU that more, rather than less, Europe is the way forward. It certainly won’t be easy.