Five Reasons the May-Macron Meeting Won’t Change the French Position on Brexit
Benjamin Leruth (University of Canberra)
Last Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron met with Theresa May at his summer residence in Bormes-Les-Mimosas. These talks were informal (Michel Barnier is and remains Chief Negotiator for the European Union), though it suggests a change in May’s strategy by holding one-on-one meetings with various national leaders of the EU27. This is a direct consequence of David Davis’ resignation and her decision to play a more prominent role in the negotiations. It is believed that holding such meetings would give her the opportunity to explain the rationale behind her Chequers plan and identify whether there is any room for manoeuvre to find a sensible agreement that works for all parties before 29 March.
What can one expect from last week’s meeting? Not much. Will this make any difference in shaping France’s position on Brexit? Probably not. Here are five reasons why.
1. A Brexit breakthrough will not come from France (or any other member state)
The EU27 have been clear since the start of the Brexit talks: they will remain united in their stance on Brexit and the future relations between the UK and the EU. Macron has no incentive whatsoever to break with this rule. This does not mean that the bilateral meeting was meaningless or a waste of time. The United Kingdom firmly believes that adopting such strategy could give the opportunity to the Prime Minister to defend her plan in ways that would not be possible while sitting at the negotiating table.
2. Emmanuel Macron is more interested in the future of the EU than in future EU-UK relations
This may sound obvious, but it needs to be re-emphasised especially ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections campaign. In his ‘Initiative Europe’ speech given at La Sorbonne in September 2017, Macron laid out his vision for a post-Brexit European Union. Some have argued that this was the most meaningful speech on Europe given by a French President since Mitterrand’s last address at the European Parliament in 1995. While Macron did not make any explicit reference to Brexit, he clearly emphasised the need to reform the EU and bring it closer to its citizens. In fact, this speech marked a very early start to the upcoming European elections as he identified key themes that will be discussed throughout the campaign. The numerous citizens’ discussions taking place all around the European Union (as proposed by Macron in his speech) do show where his priorities are, ahead of what may be the most crucial and most heavily politicised European Parliament elections ever held.
3. There is a real danger of a ‘Brexit model’ of disintegration
If there is something that can threaten Macron’s visions for the future of Europe, it is the risk of setting an acceptable precedent for leaving the EU. Forget about alternative models of European integration, such as European Economic Area membership (the ‘Norwegian Model’) or the creation of a complex set of bilateral agreements (the ‘Swiss Model’): Brexit will ultimately give the opportunity for Hard Eurosceptic parties to promote an institutionalised form of European disintegration, which may sound attractive once the United Kingdom’s economy recovers. And this might sound appealing to, for example, the current Italian government. It is thus not in Macron’s best interests to adopt a ‘softer’ stance and push for further concessions.
4. Macron has little incentive to help Theresa May
If there is one thing that the past year of negotiations has demonstrated, it is the very low level of trust between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Despite warm greetings and statements regarding ‘constructive’ talks, very little progress has been made. The recent cabinet reshuffle (following the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson) may further give the opportunity to Theresa May to mark a ‘fresh start’, but divisions still prevail. And from the other member states’ perspective, there is very little incentive to help her consolidate her status within the Conservative Party. Even though some observers would argue that ‘Macron should be very careful what he wishes for’ as a Corbyn-led Labour government could lead to even more difficult negotiations, the reality is that domestic British politics will not shape or influence the EU27’s official stance. Accordingly, even if Theresa May’s leadership were at stake, Emmanuel Macron would not step in to save her.
5. Domestic matters within France may be more important (for now)
This final point may not be as important as the others, but it may still play a role in explaining France’s role over the next couple of months. Emmanuel Macron’s popularity has been hit in July, after Le Monde revealed that one of his former security officers (Alexandre Benalla) beat up a young protestor on May Day. In addition, while his Cabinet is seeking to introduce a series of major labour reforms, the French President’s popularity is at an all-time low and opinion polls published in July suggest that about 60% of the French population is opposed to his political action. The consequence is that all of Macron’s announcements are currently under much more scrutiny than usual within the French public sphere. The more he communicates on matters such as Brexit, the more this will foster discussions in the media.
To conclude, it can be expected that Theresa May will keep on promoting her soft approach to Brexit negotiations by holding further meetings with key partners within the EU. However, it would be a mistake for the United Kingdom to believe that Emmanuel Macron and other national leaders in EU27 would change their stance after that meeting. Perhaps these meetings will contribute to working towards a ‘fresh start’ to the negotiations without David Davis, but much work still needs to be done. And the formal work takes place at the negotiating table.
Benjamin Leruth is Assistant Professor in Politics and International Relations at the Institute for Governance & Policy Analysis, University of Canberra. He is the co-editor of the Routledge Handbook of Euroscepticism (2018) and After Austerity (Oxford University Press 2017). His research focuses on differentiated integration in the European Union, Euroscepticism and public attitudes towards social policy in comparative perspective.