Pat Leahy: Macron eyes Merkel’s dominant EU role

Six-month extension to Brexit opens potential window for general election

The elderly German couple paused at passport control in Heathrow Airport on Thursday. “May I ask a question?” the gentleman said politely. The UK Border Force lady eyed him warily. “Why do you make the Brexit?” he continued. Waiting behind, The Irish Times glanced around to see if there were other queues that could be slipped into. This could take a while.

Her Majesty’s representative was impeccably polite, but non-committal. Our German friend pressed, however. “Will you really leave?”

“We’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we. Who knows what’s going to happen?”

I was returning from the European summit in Brussels which had concluded only a few hours before. The lady from Border Force had summed it up as well, I suspect, as any one of the journalists or officials still milling around the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels at 3am that morning, as EU leaders gave their concluding remarks and departed in the fleet of police-escorted BMWs.


The only thing worse than Brexit, as far as lots of people in Brussels are concerned at this stage, would be no Brexit

Brexit postponed, but hardly off the agenda. An extension of medium length, with nothing really resolved. The worst of both worlds, as our London Editor Denis Staunton judged it.

But if the big Brexit decision was avoided, this summit marked a very significant moment nonetheless. It was the moment that the French president Emmanuel Macron began to really assert himself on the European Council.

It was Macron – practically alone, according to insider accounts of the council’s meeting – who stood against the consensus that the UK should be granted a long extension to the end of this year, or possibly until March of next year. There was even a proposal – circulated to senior European Commission officials on Wednesday morning – that the extension should be until December 2020.

That Macron should have the view a short extension was preferable is not surprising; the French have been hawkish for a long time and the sense among many diplomats and officials is that Paris wants the British out, and out as soon as possible too, in case they change their mind. The only thing worse than Brexit, as far as lots of people in Brussels are concerned at this stage, would be no Brexit.

What is significant is that Macron should seek to stand against the consensus on Wednesday night and stick to his guns even as the night ticked on – leading to a pretty sour mood about the place by the time the leaders agreed the six-month compromise in the early hours of Thursday. It was an unmistakable planting of a flag.

Angela Merkel, long the dominant figure in European politics and on the council, its highest decision-making forum, is in the last phase of her remarkable career. The laws of politics mean that having announced her future departure, her power and influence are diminishing, and so the question looms: who will replace her? Monsieur Macron appears to have a suggestion about that.

The dynamics of the European Council are not just related to the size of your country and your political and diplomatic clout; they are also personal. At Council of Ministers meetings – where, say, all the EU’s environment ministers meet to approve environmental measures – ministers are accompanied by officials who prompt, restrain and guide them where necessary. At the European Council, the presidents and prime ministers are in there alone. No officials, no advisers. Just the 28 leaders. So the personal stuff matters.

At the next European Council, all the other leaders will watch Macron more closely; what does he want? How will he play it? The French president has augmented his own power. This is politics with the big boys and girls.

Any French president commands an important role on the council. But Macron is stepping forward with a clear and radical policy agenda for a post-Brexit EU at a time when there will be a personal and policy vacuum to fill. And what an agenda. He wants a euro-zone budget. He speaks of the need for closer defence co-operation with a “true, European army”. Most sensitive of all for Irish politicians, he has given new impetus to the old French desire for tax harmonisation, including a new digital tax on the internet giants. That has been beaten back, for now, but it will return – not least because the tax affairs of the tech mega-companies (and Ireland’s place in them) is increasingly hard to justify. The post-Brexit direction of the EU will be uncomfortable for Ireland in several respects.

Two possibilities

All this was on the minds of Irish officials as they watched Macron’s move on Wednesday. Their boss Leo Varadkar was thinking about all that – but also (because he is a politician) about the next election.

Brexit has prevented a general election here since last autumn. It will continue to do so bar two possibilities that a window could be opened in the coming weeks.

Theresa May will return to parliament after the Easter break and make another push to have the withdrawal agreement passed, with or without Labour’s co-operation. If she succeeds – and the UK leaves at last – we enter a standstill period where nothing changes for two years. That would make a general election likely here in June, especially if Fine Gael did well in the local and European elections at the end of May.

Or May could fail and – as many of her party would doubtless insist – resign. The process for choosing a new Tory leader would mean a shorter standstill period lasting the summer before any significant re-engagement between the EU and the UK on Brexit. Were Varadkar minded, that could give him the opportunity to go to the country. It would be a bold gamble, to be sure – which is why it would appeal to him.