Recognising that Brexit is just a complicating factor for Emmanual Macron is his grand ambitions for European reform is key to understanding this week’s visit, argues Alan Lockey
The Daily Mail is furious. It seems the devious – and worse, French! – president Emmanuel Macron has somehow convinced the prime minister to pay £45m for the privilege of resettling more migrants from Calais. In return, all Britain receives is a crusty tapestry that, it has been noted, is a shamelessly naked display of French virility and one in the eye for the English. Quentin Letts has not yet, as he did during the referendum, filed a column comparing the European Union to the enslavement of freeborn Englishman under the Norman ‘yoke’. However, few can seriously doubt he is currently limbering up.
Meanwhile, over in the Britain’s ‘Remainer’ echo chamber this is just another example of our post-Brexit desperation. Not for the first time, the Brexiteer version of reality is curiously internalised. Of course Macron took us to the cleaners – Europe holds all the cards! The Brexit folly, as the Guardian put it, is Macron’s opportunity.
Well, not exactly. Yes, Paris is eager for a few crumbs from the city’s table but this is small beer – Macron’s mission is far more grandiose than that. Indeed, the truth is the French president desperately needs Britain. That is why he routinely suggests there will always be a way back into the European fold should we change our minds. True, he is very far from being the only pro-European centrist currently making that argument. However, he does also possess two rather crucial attributes that Britain’s Remainer refuseniks currently lack. First, he has power. Second, he has a plan.
Yet to understand this cunning plot, we must first appreciate that for Macron, Brexit is but a complicating factor in his broader ambitions for European reform. His vision, set out with typical showmanship from the foothills of Athens’ Acropolis, involves radically ramping up European integration. The Eurozone is to be ‘completed’ with a dedicated EU finance minister, redistribution and a clear pathway towards fiscal union. Meanwhile, a common European defence policy and pan-European universities will boost cultural, political and even martial solidarity.
For sure, this is an agenda to make Eurosceptics bristle everywhere – a vision from their ‘United States of Europe’ nightmares. But it also unnerves the vast majority of committed federalists – such bald ambition is not the road most travelled for European reform. Worse still for them, such broad-based reform will almost certainly necessitate treaty changes on a par with 2007’s treaty of Lisbon, with all those embarrassing member state referendums. Far better, their argument goes, to proceed incrementally, lest we wake the sleeping dogs of nationalism.
Macron’s counter is that this approach has patently failed. The nationalists are awake and the European project needs a clear and unabashed defence. Appeasement is futile, audacity is the only way forward. If we need treaty changes, so be it. If some member states want to stop the journey and get off, so be that too. And if protecting the inner core of the Eurozone means the EU must become a two or even multi-speed institution, with non-Eurozone countries enjoying looser arrangements, then this is what needs to be done.
This is where Britain enters Macron’s thinking. For the French president is under no illusions that the chips are stacked very much against him in both Brussels and – when a not insignificant local difficulty is sorted out – Berlin too. Certainly, he will need strong allies and Britain, though undeniably diminished by Brexit on the European stage, remains a useful ally – in Berlin in particular. However, what if, somehow, Britain can be coaxed into considering re-entry to the EU as the leader of Europe’s looser, more decentralised, less federal periphery? Then Macron has something a little more valuable than an ally. He has a bargaining chip.
To be sure, Macron’s European vision, with its barely concealed hope of a British re-entry, is a moon-shot of epic proportions – of that there is little doubt. But then again so was his journey to the Élysée Palace – it would be unwise to bet the house against him. Besides, broken down it does exhibits a cunningly straightforward logic. The Euro is shored up against future sovereign debt crisis. The EU is reinvigorated with its sense of constitutional destiny. Germany regains its major trading partner and co-financer of European institutions. And Britain remains but still gets the substantive demands of its ‘cake and eat it’ Brexit.
Theresa May would be well advised to take Macron’s hand of friendship and enjoy the journey. But even if ultimately unsuccessful, she could still learn something from Macron about the complexities of European diplomacy. The terms of the Brexit deal itself must be thrashed out with Michel Barnier – the EU will not tolerate bilateral horse-trading. But Britain’s future place in Europe – that is a truly priceless quality. And, as Macron knows, it currently appears to be on the market.
Alan Lockey is head of the modern economy programme at Demos. He tweets at @Modern_Lockey