What was Emmanuel Macron playing at when he threatened to veto a second EU Brexit extension in October? Few would contest he was attempting to pressure British MPs to vote through Boris Johnson’s newly negotiated withdrawal agreement. He failed. But it's also worth asking another question: why did Macron stick his neck out for Boris Johnson, a man he previously branded a ‘liar’ before he entered Number 10?
Was it that ‘foot on the table’ Elysée meeting of minds (22 August) or the numerous all-hours phone calls and the 24-26 October Biarritz G7 summit that persuaded Macron to declare on 18 October that Johnson was ‘a leader with genuine strategic vision’ who should be taken seriously?
Or was it that Macron’s motivation was to get Brexit off the EU agenda to begin at last implementing his reforms for European institutions? This would make sense, given that he is the first French president since Mitterrand to make the ‘European project’ a cornerstone of his foreign and domestic policy.
All these played a part. But a deeper, more far-reaching motive was revealed in the magisterial two-hour long speech president Macron made to assembled French ambassadors on 27 August, a day after the G7 summit with Boris.
Setting out France’s (and Europe's) strategic objectives for the long term, the most surprising element of Macron's speech was the special place in this vision reserved for Britain.
Other than bringing Russia back into the European fold, establishing a Euro-Chinese partnership (in which the UK is prominently referenced) and an Indian Ocean-European dimension (where Britain could figure), the fundamental objective is to construct what he calls ‘European sovereignty’. And Macron clarifies that ‘this European sovereignty agenda must, in my eyes, include very deeply Great Britain. Whatever the outcome of Brexit, it is indispensable that we continue to think our sovereignty with Great Britain. On the military front, on the strategic front, on all subjects.’
Why then must Britain figure so prominently? Because in Macron’s words ‘history and geography have their reality. A sort of determinism.’
Macron’s speech has received surprisingly little attention. This is despite his clear attempts to implement it with his bid to smooth relations with Russia and a recent three-day visit to China last week.
What is clear is that in Macron’s grand sweep of history and geography, Brexit is mere froth. France, in Macron's view, conceives her future relations with Britain in ways she cannot with Germany. As the USA slips away, untethered by geography, and with Nato ‘brain-dead’ – according to Macron’s 7 November Economist interview – France requires a partner that will play an international strategic and military role in Europe and beyond.
Geography and history have underpinned that determinism since the nineteenth century, as a large on-going research project looking at the weight of the past in Franco-British relations is likely to confirm soon. Interestingly from the British side, the 2016 Strategic Defence and Security Review states that post-Brexit Britain’s defence and security objectives will not change and that London will remain fully engaged in the defence of Europe.
One can only conclude that in their bubble of bonhomie Emmanuel and Boris have agreed on this ‘vision’ of Franco-British relations. Whether all wings of the Conservative party are signed up to this view of Britain’s continuing relation with Europe remains to be seen.
Professor John Keiger is a former Research Director in the Department of Politics and International Politics, University of Cambridge. An edited version of this article was first published in Politeia