Macron, if anything, has talked much tougher than Barnier. The President has previously said that he believes in a “hard Brexit”—if Britain goes, it should leave the European club entirely, and retain none of the privileged access to the single market that members enjoy. He wants Britain to choose either free trade from outside the single market, like Canada, or membership fully inside it as part of the European Economic Area, like Norway. Bespoke, half-in, half-out, measures like May’s plan violate France’s interest, he believes. Chequers seeks to dodge the impossible choices: A simple free-trade area would throw up enough barriers to severely damage British industry, while remaining in the single market would mean retaining freedom of movement with the EU.
Yet if Britain wanted a free-trade deal, it would still need to resolve the vexing question of a “hard border” in Ireland. Ever since the peace agreement that ended the long running conflict in Northern Ireland, the border between the North and South has been open. But Britain’s departure from the EU single market would break the single economic area on the island and restore border controls. With Ireland insisting that a hard border would violate the peace agreement, the EU has said it can only agree to a Brexit deal that avoids the re-imposition of border controls. The Commission has said that the only way to avoid this and to give Britain the free-trade area it wants would be by creating a “backstop” situation: A customs border between Northern Ireland, still inside the single market, and the rest of the United Kingdom, stretching across the Irish Sea. Any British government and the loyalist community in Ulster, however, see this as unacceptable.
But for all Barnier’s tough talk, Irish officials worry that if Macron decides to make concessions, it will be on Irish—not French—core interests. An op-ed published on Thursday by Barnier in 20 European newspapers offering to “improve the text” of his Irish backstop proposal drops a heavy hint.
While the British government’s terrible management of Brexit has drawn chuckles from Macron’s confidantes, back at the French foreign ministry, it has elicited surprise. “We expected the British to be able to divide the EU,” one senior diplomatic source said. “But the fact they were unable to articulate what they wanted meant they failed.”
Macron’s views on Brexit have not changed since I profiled him in April 2017. Then, he told me: “My hope is that we can bring a lot of rigor to managing Brexit, anchoring Britain in a strategic partnership—in particular in the military dimension—while allowing no weakness when it touches on matters affecting the integrity of the union or the durability of the project.” Those familiar with Macron’s thinking insist he still believes this—that he wants both France and the EU to form an ambitious alliance with Britain. But can France have its cake and eat it too?
If forced to choose, Macron would choose EU stability. “He believes in the West,” one senior diplomatic official said. “But future ties cannot come at the expense of the integrity of the EU.” For Macron, there is nothing else but a Europe that can defeat populism. Failure is not an option—at least for him.
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