Macron plays hardball on Brexit, but won’t follow De Gaulle
LONDON (AP) — It took Britain more than a decade to join the European club, largely because longtime French president, Charles de Gaulle, kept saying no.
Now the U.K.’s future in the European Union looks like it will hinge on what De Gaulle’s successor in the Elysee Palace, Emmanuel Macron has to say about it.
All eyes are on a special leaders’ summit in Brussels Wednesday, where British Prime Minister Theresa May is asking for another extension to Britain’s departure from the EU. Originally meant to take place on March 29, it has already been delayed to April 12 because the British Parliament resoundingly voted against the withdrawal agreement that May negotiated with the EU. May wants an extension until June 30, but others in the EU appear to favor a much longer delay, possibly going into next year.
And Macron, playing the hardest of hardballs, has shown that he’s not keen on any kind of extension at all and will only back one if there are strings attached.
Macron is upset Britain’s Brexit agonies are spilling over into the rest of EU business, particularly next month’s European Parliament elections. He’s also worried that any Brexit extension will continue to cast a shadow over the bloc, threatening his dream of deeper European integration.
Any new delay to the Brexit date will require the unanimous support of all the other 27 EU leaders.
Standing up to Britain works in Macron’s favor domestically. Weakened by yellow vest protesters at home, he’s proving he can still defend French interests abroad. And the more of a mess Brexit is, the less appetite French voters will have for an eventual “Frexit” peddled by Macron’s populist rivals.
However, following discussions with May on Tuesday in Paris, there’s a growing expectation that Macron will back an extension after all — albeit on condition that Britain does not disrupt EU business through the delay. Macron is also aware that today’s EU runs on consensus, and any veto could sabotage his ambitions to drive substantial reform in the EU.
“He will not achieve this by deliberately thwarting the collective views of his partners in the manner that De Gaulle once did,” said Piers Ludlow, a historian at the London School of Economics who specializes on Britain’s postwar relations with Europe.
“He knows this, and will hence play his part in the collective leadership of the 27 in a way that De Gaulle could never have imagined doing.”
Britain and France have often been foes through history. Though the two battled together in the two world wars of the 20th century, the relationship was often strained, most notably when the wartime leader of the Free French Forces, De Gaulle, was president of the republic for a decade from 1959.
When the fledgling European Coal and Steel Community launched in 1951, Britain was nowhere to be seen. It also opted in 1957 against joining the six founding nations of what was then the European Economic Community, a body presided over by France.
Though Britain was absent at the EEC’s formation, it soon changed its mind. Its ambitions, though, were thwarted by De Gaulle.
British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was so distraught he confided in his diary in 1963 that “all our policies at home and abroad are in ruins” after De Gaulle vetoed Britain’s first bid to join.
De Gaulle said “Non” again in 1967.
De Gaulle, who spent much of World War II in London when France was under occupation, warned his five EEC partners — Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy and West Germany — that Britain had a “deep-seated hostility” to European integration that could bring about the end of what was then referred to as the “common market.” He also worried that in crunch times, Britain would always side with the United States over its continental neighbors.
It was only after De Gaulle had left the scene that Britain could finally take its place at the European top table. De Gaulle’s successor, Georges Pompidou, was far more amenable to British membership and by 1973 Britain finally joined.
Relations have grown closer in the decades since, bar the odd spat — notably over the 2003 U.S.-led war in Iraq, which Britain, under Prime Minister Tony Blair, participated in but France, under President Jacques Chirac, balked at.
Britain and France work together closely militarily. Many French call Britain their home and vice versa, and no self-respecting English Premier League would be without a French player or two.
Macron is also facing a financial calculation: France would be hard-hit by a cliff-edge Brexit, since the countries’ trade is so tightly intertwined. One forecast this week estimates that Brexit would wreak as much damage to the French economy as the five-month yellow vest movement that has seen rioting and road blocks cut into tourism and investment.
Any decision by Macron to echo De Gaulle would have huge implications for all those ties that the consensus is that he won’t be yielding the veto.
Whatever happens at the summit, would De Gaulle be surprised that Britain is causing so much anguish?
Charlton contributed from Paris.
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