OPINION: Macron failed to do a De Gaulle on Britain. But why did he even try?

OPINION: Macron failed to do a De Gaulle on Britain. But why did he even try?
Photo: AFP
In holding a hardline against Britain's Brexit delay - a move that may have disappointed the tens of thousands of Britons in France - the French President Emmanuel Macron misread the mood of the EU, over-estimated his influence and let his arrogance and inexperience take over, writes John Lichfield.

The emergency summit which ended in Brussels early today was supposed to be about Britain and Brexit.  For several hours, it became all about France; or rather all about Emmanuel Macron.

The French president implied that he was willing to take the “responsibility” of pushing Britain out of the EU tomorrow with “no deal”. Then he did not.

A compromise was reached which gave the UK – and up to 300,000 Britons in France – another six months in which to come to terms with Brexit. Or maybe to engineer a Non-Brexit

What was Macron doing? Many Britons in France will be disappointed that he took such a hard line. 

Other French politicians, both left and right, are naturally piling in today to say that they would have been tougher or played their cards much better in Brussels. The same politicians would have blamed Macron for the damage caused by a no-deal.  

Macron overplayed his hand. He did have arguments on his side: the danger of an endless, destructive Brexit war in the UK spreading to the continent; the absurdity of Britain voting in European elections in May and then withdrawing its Euro MPs after five months or even sooner. 

But Macron misread the mood of other EU capitals and he over-estimated his own strength.

It was never plausible that the French president would veto a further extension of Article 50 (the official two year process for Britain to leave the EU). There was no political gain for Macron in causing the economic and political chaos of a No Deal Brexit – no particular gain in France and none for his hopes of reshaping the European Union.

Other leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, knew that. They outbluffed him.

Macron wanted a short extension until 7 May or, at the very latest, the end of June. Most of the 26 others wanted to give Britain an extra 9 or 12 months – enough to extract the poison from the debate in the UK and, maybe, to allow the pressure to build for a second referendum.

The outcome was a classic Brussels early morning fix, something that no one wanted but everyone could live with. The other leaders compromised but it was Macron who climbed down. 

François Heisbourg, former head of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Lonon, tweeted: “Macron appears as the loser because he exposed himself needlessly by talking too much in the run-up.”

The French president failed to prepare the ground. Only two countries supported him, Austria and Luxembourg. They soon melted away. 

 Most importantly, he ran into the stubborn opposition of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Her German hatred of “chaos” defeated Macron’s French insistence on “first principles”. 

Franco-German spats in the EU are not new. The outcome of this spat puts into perspective Macron’s hopes of becoming the de facto “leader” of Europe when Merkel steps down at the end of her present term.

Officials from several other EU countries accused Macron of talking about “saving the EU” but “thinking only about French domestic politics”. This is misleading. Macron was driven as much by his sense of self-importance and European “mission” as genuine French interests.

Why did Macron take a hard line? He gave three reasons. 

First, a lengthy extension of British in-out membership could damage EU institutions and derail his own hopes of turning debate in Europe towards other pressing problems (migration, China, the US, the rise of anti-EU populism). Second, that the EU 27 should not be seen to be undermining the democratic vote of a majority of the British people to leave the EU in June 2016.

Third, that the “unity” of the EU-27 must be preserved.

The third argument was feeble. It amounted to saying that the others should fall into line with France. The others disagreed.

The second argument – the sacrosanct democracy of the 2016 referendum – is also dubious. Macron has himself pointed out in the past that this referendum was “won” partly by lies and impossible promises.

The French president’s first argument is perfectly sound and may yet prove prescient. If Theresa May is deposed and replaced by a Boris Johnson or a Michael Gove, the British civil war could cross the Channel . A Brexiteer-led UK government could try to disrupt business in Brussels to get its way.

READ ALSO: 'Brits get out of the EU' – A French view of the Brexit chaos

Others were prepared to take that risk. Some of them still cling to the possibility that Britain might change its mind. Macron does not. He thinks that it is time to cut Britain loose – amicably if possible, brutally if necessary.

There is an intellectual constituency in France for this “get them out” viewpoint, among pro-European politicians and think-tank operatives. There is no strong emotional or popular  pressure from the French mainstream media or the general public.

Any small electoral gain for Macron would have been outweighed by the economic and political damage of a French-willed no-deal Brexit:  French trawlers banned from UK waters; disruption at ports and the Channel Tunnel; Irish fury.  

The other EU leaders rightly concluded that Macron would not stand alone as Charles De Gaulle did against UK membership in 1963 and 1967. The circumstances were different. The personalities were different. 

They were right. Macron’s arrogance and inexperience took him into an unsustainable position. At least he had the sense to recognise that and to withdraw.

John Lichfield is a veteran correspondent on all things French and European. He is based in France. You can follow him on Twitter @John_Lichfield

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