France to insist on conditions in granting UK Brexit delay

Macron poised for May’s request amid concerns over ability to pass withdrawal accord

French president Emmanuel Macron and British prime minister Theresa May in Paris: ratification of the withdrawal accord would be France’s “preferred scenario”. Photograph: Ian Langsdon

French president Emmanuel Macron and British prime minister Theresa May in Paris: ratification of the withdrawal accord would be France’s “preferred scenario”. Photograph: Ian Langsdon

 

On Wednesday night, a vote at the European Council meeting in Brussels will determine whether the UK leaves the union in a no-deal Brexit on Friday or extends the deadline yet again, until May 22nd, June 30th or even into early 2020.

UK prime minister Theresa May travelled to Berlin and Paris on Tuesday to brief chancellor Angela Merkel and president Emmanuel Macron on the progression of her talks with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

British media have described Dr Merkel and Mr Macron as a “good cop, bad cop” routine, with the German chancellor playing a more conciliatory role in Brexit negotiations. Paris has, since the beginning, been seen to take a harder line against British demands.

In particular, French officials have cast doubt on Mr Macron’s willingness to grant the UK another extension to avoid a no-deal Brexit, in particular a long one.

A presidential adviser who briefed journalists shortly before Mrs May arrived at the Élysée said France was willing to accept an extension under certain conditions.

Mrs May intends to submit the withdrawal agreement she concluded with the EU’s negotiator Michel Barnier to a fourth vote in the House of Commons. One option under consideration is that if the British parliament ratifies that accord by May 22nd, on the eve of European elections, an extension will be granted until June 30th.

Customs union

British ratification of the withdrawal accord would be France’s “preferred scenario”, the adviser said. “But we must observe that it has failed three times, so we cannot count on it. This cannot be the option on which our decision at [Wednesday night’s] European Council is taken.”

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EU leaders will decide on the basis of progress in talks between Mrs May and Mr Corbyn, which could result in the UK remaining in the customs union, the adviser said. “We are evaluating the credibility of the process under way in the UK. That is the condition under which we could accept an extension, with strict guarantees.”

But “if the UK is not capable of ratifying the deal and has no credible prospect of a bi-partisan agreement, there is no point granting an extension, short or long”, the adviser warned. “An impasse means a no-deal Brexit.”

France “does not want endless summits”, the adviser explained. “Europe must show that it can do other things than Brexit summits.”

British prime minister Theresa May and German chancellor Angela Merkel say goodbye after they met to discuss Brexit in Berlin on April 9th. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
British prime minister Theresa May and German chancellor Angela Merkel say goodbye after they met to discuss Brexit in Berlin on April 9th. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

The adviser summarised the British position with Beckettian humour. “At this point, sadly we must observe that there are two majorities in the British parliament: a majority against the deal and a majority against the no-deal.”

Most important, the adviser said, Brexit “must not disturb the functioning of the EU”.

“Any discussion of an extension, long or short, must have, as its first condition, the functioning of the EU.”

Johnson and Rees-Mogg

The presidential adviser alluded to statements by pro-Brexit Tories Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg threatening to trammel up the workings of the EU for as long as Britain remains. He called the statements “a kind of provocation” but said they showed why France would be very firm in demanding guarantees. “The longer the period of extension, the stronger the guarantees must be.”

As a departing member of the EU, the UK should not have a say in choosing the new president of the EU Commission, the adviser said. Nor should it have the possibility of vetoing the union’s seven-year budget.

France will demand “strict guarantees”, including the constitution of a “follow-up committee” to ensure the UK keeping its commitments, particularly in the event of a long extension.

If an extension is granted beyond May 22nd, the UK must hold EU parliamentary elections.

“The parliament would continue to have 751 members, including 73 Britons, and other member states would return to their previous quotas,” the adviser said. Legally, the prerogatives of British MEPs could not be restricted, but France would expect them to limit their participation.

It was also out of the question for the UK to negotiate its future relationship with the EU before completing its withdrawal, the adviser said.

Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, advocates a one-year extension. The French presidential adviser said “if we go towards a long extension, one year seems too long”.

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