Britain divides however doesn’t rule – POLITICO.eu


PARIS — Britain has finally managed to split France and Germany over Brexit after nearly three years in which the two continental powers marched in lockstep. The trouble for the U.K. is that it is too busy fighting itself over the future it wants with the European Union to take advantage of the rift.

Cracks between French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared last month, after British Prime Minister Theresa May requested a delay in the U.K.’s departure to break an impasse in parliament. At a special EU summit in Brussels, the French leader insisted any extension to the negotiating period be brief. The German chancellor, meanwhile, advocated giving Britain as long a breathing space as possible.

Officially, the disagreement was just about tactics. Paris wanted a short leash to force U.K. lawmakers to come to a decision and avoid the farce of British members in the new European Parliament having a say in July on the next Commission president, three years after their country voted to leave the EU.

Berlin argued that Britain might well need longer to accept the divorce settlement and should be given more time to rethink. Merkel said everything should be done to avoid a no-deal Brexit. Macron said no deal remained an option and insisted the U.K. should decide quickly.

The two leaders eventually compromised on a six-month reprieve until October 31, which would mean that the U.K. leaves before the new Commission takes office, barring a further delay.

British Prime Minister Theresa May requested a Brexit delay, which found Germany and France favoring different approaches | Michal Wachucik/Getty Images

Behind the official positions, some German politicians are still fervently hoping the British will change their minds and stay, whether via a second referendum, a general election or some longer-term delay. Some say privately a no-deal Brexit could have as severe economic consequences as the 2008 financial crisis. So they want to give London enough time to organize another vote.

Merkel can’t voice these thoughts publicly, but Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble, her former finance minister and one of Germany’s most influential conservatives, has said the U.K.’s decision to put off the original March 29 Brexit date strengthened his belief that “either Britain will not leave the EU at all, or it will come back at some stage.”

European Council President Donald Tusk has also said he hasn’t given up dreams that Britain will have a change of heart and withdraw its notice to quit. He told Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper last week there was a 20-30 percent chance of the U.K. staying.

Macron’s hard line reflected French media and public exasperation at Britain’s procrastination. Paris is convinced the U.K. will not reverse course and wants to avoid Brexit causing further disruption and distracting from France’s agenda for an EU “Renaissance.” The president said it isn’t up to Europeans “to bury the sovereign decision of the British people to leave Europe, even if one may regret it.”

The nature of the Franco-German split makes it particularly difficult for London to exploit.

Amélie de Montchalin, Macron’s new secretary of state for European affairs, points to France’s own experience of a ballot being ignored after voters rejected the EU’s draft constitution in a 2005 referendum only to see the same provisions enacted in the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon. That fueled support for Euroskeptic populists. She said: “2005 created a deep democratic rupture … The whole U.K. elite, the whole of the City [of London financial center], are hoping we’ll find a way to help them stay. But that’s not democracy.”

From the outset of the negotiations, British diplomats tried to drive a wedge between Berlin and Paris to extract more favorable trade terms from the EU.

Just as former Prime Minister David Cameron hoped in vain that Merkel would let him restrict freedom of movement of EU workers to Britain in order to win his 2016 referendum, May believed the chancellor would allow privileged U.K. access to the single market after Brexit to protect German car exports.

The threat of a no-deal Brexit was supposed to sharpen those divisions by forcing continental governments to put their national commercial interests first, giving London leverage.

That strategy misread the priority all EU leaders gave to keeping the 27 remaining member states united, preserving the integrity of the European single market and avoiding an à la carte precedent that could undermine the value of membership.

The nature of the Franco-German split makes it particularly difficult for London to exploit.

British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel share a joke at a round table meeting on April 10, 2019 in Brussels | Pool photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

The Germans want the U.K. to stay, which neither major British political party officially supports. The French want the U.K. to go quickly, but is not prepared to offer concessions on the Irish border issue that has divided the Conservative Party and its Democratic Unionist Party allies.

Both France and Germany would welcome a British request to remain in a permanent customs union with the EU, which would largely remove the need for border controls between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. But that is the opposition Labour Party’s policy, and is unacceptable to many Conservative MPs. May has made an independent trade policy one of her red lines.

The prime minister is now so politically weak that she may not be able to concede on a customs union. And Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn faces fierce pressure from his own membership to insist on a referendum on any exit deal.

Many Conservatives cling to a vision of negotiating ambitious free-trade agreements with the world’s major economies as one of the great prizes of Brexit. That’s despite evidence that the much larger EU market offers larger benefits, and that the potential plunge in trade with continental Europe dwarfs potential gains with partners such as the United States, China or India.

In weeks of talks on a potential cross-party compromise with Labour leaders, May’s government has so far refused to concede more than a very temporary customs arrangement until 2022 that would take effect anyway under the Withdrawal Agreement if, as everyone expects, there is no comprehensive EU-U.K. trade deal ready by the time a post-Brexit transition period expires.

“Brexit with a customs union would be largely political and not change much economically,” De Montchalin said, arguing that even if the U.K. were to crash out without a deal, it would be back 10 days later begging for an agreement because of the immediate economic disruption.

The view in Paris is that keeping the U.K. in the EU against the wishes of the British electorate would be worse than a hard Brexit.

On one thing, France and Germany do seem to agree. The fate of Brexit is out of their hands, and they are not ready to offer big concessions to help the British come to a decision.

Paul Taylor, contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the Europe At Large column.



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