Stephen Collins: Why the French fear a long Brexit goodbye

Emmanuel Macron fears subversion of EU just as his predecessor Charles de Gaulle did

The dilemma facing Emmanuel Macron is that a long extension to the UK departure date will provide an opportunity for further subversion. At the very least it will allow the British political system to engage in endless prevarication. Photograph:  Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

The dilemma facing Emmanuel Macron is that a long extension to the UK departure date will provide an opportunity for further subversion. At the very least it will allow the British political system to engage in endless prevarication. Photograph: Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

 

The evident anxiety of president Emmanuel Macron of France about the capacity of the Brexit process to do lasting damage to the European Union brings to mind the scepticism of his illustrious predecessor, Charles de Gaulle, about admitting the United Kingdom in the first place.

Back in January 1961 de Gaulle vetoed the UK’s initial application saying: “Britain is insular, maritime, bound up by its trade, its markets, its food supplies, with the most varied and often distant countries. Her activity is essentially industrial and commercial, not agricultural. She has, in all her work, very special, very original habits and traditions.”

One of the most striking things about the whole political debate in Westminster is just how detached it is from the reality of the position the country now finds itself in

While the UK’s trading relationship with the rest of the continent has certainly become closer since the country joined the European project, along with Ireland and Denmark in 1973, the nub of de Gaulle’s objection has been proved only too right over the course of the Brexit process.

De Gaulle was worried about the danger that the British would wreck European co-operation if allowed in. Macron’s concern is that they could destroy it on the way out.

Even after the UK joined the then EEC its approach to membership was regularly marked by obstructive tactics. This was famously satirised in the episode of the timeless television comedy, Yes Minister, when senior civil servant Sir Humphrey explained to his political master that UK had only joined the EEC to subvert it from the inside.

Further subversion

The dilemma exercising Macron today is that a long extension to the UK departure date will provide an opportunity for further subversion. At the very least it will allow the British political system to engage in endless prevarication.

While it is in this country’s interests that the UK does not crash out without a deal there is a very real threat that by facilitating a long and winding road to the exit, serious damage will be done to the EU. Leading Tory Eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg has suggested that a long extension should be used to make the functioning of the EU as difficult as possible. “We could veto any increase in the budget, obstruct the putative EU army and block Mr Macron’s integrationist schemes.”

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While he clearly does not reflect British government thinking there are serious questions about how the UK can legally remain in the EU for a considerable period while being excluded from participating in the major decisions that lie ahead, particularly a new seven-year budget and the appointment of a new commission.

Even if British ministers behave themselves, it is inevitable that people such as Nigel Farage will do everything they can to obstruct the work of the next European Parliament. They will have the opportunity to build alliances with ultra-nationalists from other EU countries intent on neutering the EU.

Backward country

All of this could turn out to be even more damaging to Ireland than a no-deal Brexit. It is worth restating the basic fact that EU membership has been the single most important event in transforming this State from a backward country with living standards roughly half of those of the UK into a thriving modern economy.

Protecting the future of the EU is of critical importance to Ireland and that means facing up to the reality that a no-deal Brexit is inevitable unless there is a sea change in the attitude of the British parliament.

It is not just Brexiteers who are standing in the way of a deal but ardent Remainers and all of those who for whatever political motives are refusing to support the withdrawal agreement.

A French government spokesman summed up the position neatly during Theresa May’s visit to the Élysée Palace on Tuesday. “At this point we must observe that there are two majorities in the British parliament: a majority against the deal and a majority against the no-deal.”

The danger of a long extension is that instead of forcing the government and opposition in London to come to some sort of resolution in their current talks it may simply let them off the hook as they manoeuvre for position in advance of the inevitable general election.

One of the most striking things about the whole political debate in Westminster and the coverage of most the British media, including the BBC, is just how detached it is from the reality of the position the country now finds itself in. It has been conducted as if all that matters are the political games taking place in the House of Commons while the country slides ever closer to the cliff edge.

While de Gaulle prevented the UK from joining the EEC, he had tremendous respect for the British political system. Addressing a joint sitting of the Lords and Commons in April 1960 he said:

“With self-assurance, almost without being aware of it, you operate in freedom a secure, stable political system. So strong are your traditions and loyalties in the political field that your government is quite naturally endowed with cohesion and permanence; that your parliament has, throughout each term of office, an assured majority; that this government and this majority are permanently in harmony; in short that your executive and legislative powers are balanced and work together by definition.”

That is a statement nobody could make today.

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