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The last week has seen the most concerted British diplomatic push with its French neighbours in many years. Days after the new British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, raced straight to Paris from his trip to China, the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, cut short her holiday to visit French President Emmanuel Macron at his summer retreat.
Their movements reveal the conclusion they have reached: France is the biggest national obstacle to a Brexit deal and the key country to unlock a change of attitude in the European Commission. What they will have found is that the long love-hate relationship between the British and the French lives on in ministerial form. Dealing with governments in Paris is just like going to a restaurant there — the French are always fascinating, usually charming, addictive to know and wonderful friends, and yet frequently infuriating, unreasonable and exasperating at the same time.
In my years as foreign secretary, my first phone call to the continent in a crisis would always be to my French counterpart. Alone in Europe, they would be ready in matters of international security to take action, make a decision, incur risks and do something bold — in Mali, Libya or the Central African Republic. Britain signed a new treaty to integrate its armed forces and nuclear know-how more closely than ever before. There is much warmth and reassurance in standing together with France.
Yet, I would also be at loggerheads with them over anything connected to the European Union (EU), such as their obsession with setting up a military headquarters in Brussels separate from Nato, which I was determined to prevent. The French elites — and they are still in power for now — believe the lesson of history is that they need European unity above all else, with themselves in the vanguard of creating it.
At the same time, the French smart from the booming prosperity of London and the migration of talented people and financial markets across the Channel. Like us, they try not to choose between their conflicting feelings about a historic foe, but when they have to, they put Europe’s unity and a chance to get ahead of the United Kingdom before their fondness for us.
That was dramatically illustrated by Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s, even though no French leader has ever had more cause to be grateful to Britain. In all probability, Macron will demonstrate it again. May and Hunt are quite right to throw everything at influencing him and his ministers. Around the EU, other leaders lack the will, the power or the imagination to break the deadlock. German Chancellor Angela Merkel shows few signs of taking ownership of any European vision of future relations with Britain. Dutch and Nordic leaders are well-disposed, but not powerful.
When Macron returns to the Elysee later this month, there will no doubt be a memo waiting for him about the British effort. I expect it will read, if translated, something like this: “The British are valuable friends, but they are not going to end their military and intelligence work with us however Brexit turns out. By keeping them out of the Galileo satellite system we can make France the leading country in European space business. We are just getting some jobs transferred from London banks to Paris and can get more if we keep up the pressure. And you, Mr President, are now the foremost advocate of EU integration and unity, so you should not try to override Michel Barnier [European Chief Negotiator for the UK exiting the EU] — a respected French negotiator — to give more of a special deal to the UK.
“Finally, if the ‘no deal’ scenario they are warning us about happens, there is a good chance their parliament will defer leaving, or order another referendum, leading to utter chaos in Britain, but an object lesson in what happens if you try to leave the EU. We should maintain a hard line.”
If the French president then writes: “Oui, d’accord” [Yes, okay] on the top of it, would he be wrong? Yes, I think he would. Even from the French point of view, this would be a mistake.
It could indeed turn out that, in the absence of any deal, Britain will never leave, which is why devout Brexiteers have to be very careful what they wish for. But to assume that would be a gamble, and in statecraft big gambles are best avoided. If the reason ‘no deal’ is in prospect as intransigence in Brussels, the chances Britain will leave anyway go up.
Most economists say the UK will lose out more than the EU in those circumstances — not that their profession has distinguished itself with forecasting the effects of Brexit. But they do say everybody loses, including many European businesses. Is France so sure of an expanding economy that it can afford that? The Eurozone actually grew a little more slowly than the UK in the most recent quarter. And, come the next recession, fragile Italian banks are going to need access to London’s capital markets.
There are countless other reasons why a French leader should worry about what might happen: The hundreds of thousands of citizens potentially caught in legal limbo in either country, and the disruption caused to ports and airports — or at minimum the consequences of widespread expectation of such disruption.
Within Britain, many of those who have advocated pragmatic solutions to Brexit would switch to calling for the UK to maximise its competitive advantage against the rest of Europe in every way possible — open the freeports, make financial regulation more attractive for those locating in the UK and halt payments to the EU budget.
Such arguments are fairly obvious. The crucial one, however, is strategic and long-term. In the world of a rising China and a less reliable America, Britain and France will need each other more. Brexit is a big complication, but if the EU is incapable of forging a special relationship with its closest, largest democratic neighbour, even when it is offered one, its chances of surviving the 21st century will be diminished.
Macron should return the memo with instructions to start finding creative answers — to an open Irish border, a mutually acceptable customs system and how to share military satellite facilities. Probably he won’t, for all the traditional reasons. But if he did, a small flame of statesmanship would be lit in a European scene steadily darkened by inflexibility and lack of leadership.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2018
William Hague is the former UK foreign secretary and a former leader of the Conservative Party.