Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Tonight, Mr Macron will fall into line like he always does

Published by The Telegraph

Tonight, we can expect tense discussions at yet another crucial European Summit examining Brexit. EU leaders broadly support an extension of UK membership, but are yet to agree on the duration and conditions surrounding it.

Yet any Brexiteers hoping for Emmanuel Macron to bring months of uncertainty to an end by vetoing a further delay will be bitterly disappointed.

France heads the ‘hardliner’ camp, joined by Greece and Slovenia. They fear a long delay may lead to a potential ‘credibility’ hit amongst European voters, in the face of the upcoming European Parliament elections in May. Yesterday, top diplomats agreed to let EU leaders themselves decide the length of the extension.

The consensus was, according to one diplomatic note, that “it is better to go for a long extension and kick the ball back into the UK’s court.”

This already represents a defeat for the French President, who had been pushing for a short extension. Just last week, he warned that the EU "cannot be the hostage of a political crisis in the U.K.”

In recent months, Macron has been flexing his diplomatic muscles, perhaps fearing the recalcitrant British, if allowed to remain in the EU under overly friendly terms, could use their membership privileges to upset his grand vision for the European project. This has become an increasingly important priority with Angela Merkel’s impending departure from the political scene.

Yet he looks set to roll back his demands, which now focus on the conditions that EU leaders want May to accept in return for an extension. Senior French officials have privately proposed to check every two or three months whether the UK respects some kind of “code of conduct” on voting at meetings, with the prospect of a hasty EU departure floated as a possible sanction, though there are doubts in several European capitals as to whether this would be legal.

The French have also called for Britain to lose its veto, although it doesn’t necessarily look like they will get their way. The draft Summit conclusions only require the UK to act in “a constructive and responsible manner in accordance with the duty of sincere cooperation”. The UK would only be asked to behave in a way that “reflects its situation as a withdrawing Member State”. The French also hope to prevent the UK from nominating a European Commissioner.

Macron insists that if the UK were to agree to a customs union, it should not undermine the integrity of the single market”, meaning that Britain would need to comply with EU single market rules to get tariff-free access. However, writing this in the non-binding political declaration, as is the plan, wouldn’t change the legally binding withdrawal agreement.

This foresees that at the latest in 2023, the UK would enter the backstop, thereby enjoying tariff-free access to the EU while gaining the right to issue divergent regulations. This would only be subject to very modest “level playing field” requirements not to undercut European Union social and ecological standards, which the EU can’t legally enforce as the withdrawal agreement exempts those from arbitration.

Germany and other countries rightly fear a “no deal” Brexit and the disruption and economic losses it would bring, while the EU Treaties simply do not provide the means to constrain the UK if it remains a member of the bloc. Under pressure from Frau Merkel, it looks like Macron will not only have to climb down on the extension, but will gain much weaker guarantees from Britain than he would have hoped.

Some argue that Macron’s hardline approach of late has simply been clever stage management, classic to the EU, a bit of “good cop / bad cop” behaviour. Others believe Macron is simply posturing to boost his party’s performance in the EP elections - and deflect from his own flagging popularity in domestic polling.

After all, President Macron must realise the perils of no-deal when witnessing the traffic misery in Calais in recent weeks due to customs staff striking over lack of preparation for Brexit; or when considering that French fishermen could well join the gilets-jaunes should they lose access to UK waters.

Yet even if Macron is happy to ignore these concerns, his European colleagues, at least, do not share his blasé attitude.

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