One thing on which Remainers and Brexiteers can agree is that Brexit delayed is Brexit denied. The government continues to proclaim that the UK will leave the EU on 31 October with or without a deal. But No. 10 is acutely sensitive to the possibility of a parliamentary manoeuvre designed to compel the executive, through legislation, to seek a further extension of Article 50 to delay Brexit yet again. But Boris Johnson should keep calm about this prospect, for an unlikely saviour – the president of France, Emmanuel Macron – could come to his rescue.
Whatever Brexit extension legislation Parliament might push through, any further extension of Article 50 requires unanimous EU Council of Ministers’ support. President Macron, whose reluctance to grant the last extension is well known, could swoop to Boris’s aid; with a flick of his veto, he could leave the default date of 31 October intact. But would it be in Macron and France’s interest to do so? Yes, if Macron can extract from Boris some commitments. Here are a few areas dear to the French president in the short and long term.
First, Macron will want a commitment to continue close Franco-British diplomatic, military and security relations. As things stand, France is more isolated internationally than she has been for a number of years. Relations with EU member states are generally poor; those with Germany are tense and diverging and those with Trump’s America conflictual and deteriorating.
In moments of similar tension over the 20th century, France has looked to Britain for partnership and support, albeit not always successfully. The Franco-British entente has been solid since the 1980s – Iraq 2003 notwithstanding – in foreign policy, defence and security, though only rarely formalised by agreements such as the 1998 Saint-Malo or 2010 Lancaster House agreements.
At present, the Quai d’Orsay and the Elysée are anxious that Britain is at a crossroads in her strategic interests. For at least a century, those interests have fluctuated between a continental and an Atlantic commitment. The French, more than most, have been sensitive to those shifts. General de Gaulle never forgot Churchill’s quip that ‘Between the continent and the open sea, I will always choose the open sea’. Macron, with his finger on the pulse of history, will be keen to ensure that this turning point in Franco-British relations does not turn away.
The French have noted US attempts to woo Britain via promises of quick trade deals, with those coming from the US national security advisor, John Bolton, guaranteed to sound alarm bells. They know the Trump administration is ruthlessly transactional and that anything could be included in or around a trade deal. In exchange, Britain could be edged towards inflecting its foreign policy on issues way beyond Iran, like Africa, to France’s detriment.
Second, Macron could veto an EU extension in exchange for secretly negotiating with Boris some bilateral mini-trade concessions for application at a later date, to protect France’s vulnerable £9bn trade surplus with the UK.
French agriculture, wine and fishing will be badly hit in a no-deal Brexit. But more importantly, these are sectors with a long tradition of radical protest that Macron could do without igniting given his long-running confrontation with the ‘gilets jaunes’.
Rather than siding with Remainer attempts to extend the Brexit process, Macron could be shown to be acting in Europe’s long term interests by putting an abrupt end to the EU’s Brexit distraction – better to concentrate on reforming and deepening its institutions, as set out in his 2017 Sorbonne speech, while secretly mitigating some of the fall-out for France from a no-deal Brexit.
There may be longer-term ramifications for the EU from a closer British trading relationship with the US, other than denying the EU privileged access to one of the world’s largest import markets.
At present, British regulatory and technical standards are set to EU norms. But this could change if the US – which is already Britain’s single largest trading partner – deepened and widened its commercial relationship with the UK.
At present, there is global competition between EU and US regulatory standards with third countries choosing to elect for one system or the other. If Britain were to move out of the EU regulatory orbit then it could encourage other states to act similarly. Other than undermining the EU’s world standing in this area of soft power, it could also impact commercial relations with Britain, with whom it has an enormous trade surplus.
Turning to Russia has been a sign of France’s isolation on the European continent for over a century. Macron hosted Putin yesterday with a view to bringing Russia back into the G8 and reviving an older French idea of anchoring Russia to Europe via a European Economic Area partnership. Little can come of this in the short term. But with Trump dubbing the EU a geopolitical ‘foe’ and the risk of Britain being drawn towards the ‘open sea’, president Macron may have reason to throw Boris a lifeline.
Professor John Keiger is former research director in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge