A question divides the inner circles of French government. Is Boris Johnson a man with whom you can do business?
Some, including Emmanuel Macron, believed until this week that Johnson was an ambitious man driven by self-interest but, ultimately, a deal-maker: someone who would look for a way to reach a Brexit compromise with Brussels and the other 27 EU governments.
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The elegant, controlled, uptight French President is intrigued by his shambolic, verbose new neighbour. He describes Johnson privately as “a man more serious than he appears but trapped by his own undeliverable promises and falsehoods”.
At their first meeting at the Elysée Palace on 22 August, the two men got on well. A celebrated picture of Johnson putting his foot on a gilded coffee table was, in fact, a shared joke. Macron was cautious but ready to accept that Johnson wanted an agreement — not a fake negotiation which would then allow Downing Street to blame Brussels and the EU-27 for No Deal.
There is, however, another view in Paris.
Boris Johnson is not a man to be trusted. He is a British Salvini or a British Orbán or a British Trump. He is a populist who will lie and distort to fire up his electoral base rather than accept reality or adapt to the tedious labour of EU deal-making.
After the events of this week, the anti-Johnson view is in the ascendancy. The aggressive language of Downing Street off-the-record briefings and the breach of secrecy after an Angela Merkel-Boris Johnson phone call, have convinced senior French figures that the British Prime Minister is already fighting an undeclared “Little England versus the EU” election, not looking for a deal.
The Elysée Palace has not entirely given up hope of at least an outline deal on an orderly British exit before next week’s EU summit. Officials say that, following a phone conversation last Sunday night, Macron was convinced that a slight chance existed that Johnson would improve his “final”, take-it-or-leave-it proposals to prevent a post-Brexit, hard Irish border.
This may be wishful thinking. Macron has many reasons to want the Brexit saga to be over and done with.
He fears that endless delay will use up the energy and time he needs to push his agenda for a relaunch of the EU (a strengthened eurozone; policies to give European hi-tech and other industries space to breathe).
He fears that a Britain which remains in the EU partially against its will will be damaging — for both the EU and Britain. With Britain out of the way, and Germany caught up in a lengthy Merkel succession, France would have a unique opportunity to shape Europe’s course in the next few years.
Macron’s preference is for Britain to leave soon — with a deal if possible. He is not scared of the consequences of No Deal. Others, including the Irish, the Germans and many in the French business community, take a different view.
Three mutually incompatible versions of “what the French want” have appeared under confident headlines in the British press in recent days.
One: the wicked French are conspiring to keep Britain in the European Union. Two: they have lost patience and want the British out on their ear — without a deal if necessary. Three: they will accept a third Brexit postponement so long as the UK promises an election/referendum to dissolve the gridlock in London.
The first — “Emmanuel Macron is conspiring with senior British pro-Europeans to keep the UK in the EU” — was spun by Downing Street “sources”. It is, the French insist, nonsense — part of a campaign to whip up anti-European emotions in Britain ahead of an early election.
The second — “Paris just wants Brexit done and thinks No Deal is fine” — is the official line proclaimed by, among others, the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian. It is not entirely wrong but it is misleading.
The third — “Macron will reluctantly accept the House of Commons’ demand for another delay (the Benn Act)” — is probably true. For now.
In March Emmanuel Macron annoyed many of his EU partners by standing almost alone at an EU summit against a Brexit postponement. He warned that delay would lead to more delay. The EU could not be held hostage to British indecision. Britain needed, he said, to be confronted with the harsh reality of No Deal.
Macron gave way to the majority and allowed an extension until 31 October. He has since been vindicated by events. He has also emerged, maybe temporarily, as Europe’s de facto political leader.
That does not make him the sole arbiter of Britain’s fate. Any decision by EU governments must be unanimous. If any single EU leader has a thumbs up-thumbs down power over a Brexit deal or Brexit delay, it is the Irish Taioseach, Leo Varadkar.
Macron will nonetheless be a pivotal player in the next few days up to and during the EU summit in Brussels on 17-18 October (and conceivably at a second, emergency summit before the end of the month).
France is one of the EU countries that will suffer least direct damage from a No Deal Brexit, according to the International Monetary Fund. France has made elaborate preparations at the Channel ports (much more so than Britain).
All the same with the German economy already cooling rapidly, a chasm in the European single market might push the EU recession and/or send the euro plunging against the dollar. French business is not so sanguine about No Deal as Macron.
Conversations with French officials in recent days suggest that the French president — despite his hard line last March — is prepared to go along with another extension of the Article 50 process for Britain’s departure from the EU. His political calculations in March about the impact on the European elections in early May no longer apply. The fact that he was right last time gives him moral authority to be flexible now.
However, he, and several other leaders, will insist on a clear reason for further delay — the promise of a general election or a new referendum to break the impasse in the House of Commons.
“Whatever we do should lead to a decision, not provide an excuse for more indecision,” one official said. “This has to be the last extension. It may have to be longer than the three months which the House of Commons has asked for. Some other governments have suggested up to 12 months. We think that’s too long.”
Macron’s first preference, however, remains a deal before the 31 October deadline (with perhaps a short “technical” extension to give time for the deal to ratified by the House of Commons, member governments and the European Parliament).
Macron believed until Tuesday that there was a “faint chance” that the London would improve its offer on the Irish border. If so, the EU might be prepared to move a short distance towards the British government — but only a short distance.
In a telephone conversation with Boris Johnson on Sunday evening, Macron said that detailed talks between London and Brussels should continue until the end of the week. This was variously interpreted in the UK as a concession or a threat. It was largely a statement of the obvious. There will be no heavy-lifting negotiations at the summit itself. Any deal must be agreed, at least in outline, by early next week.
A phone call between the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Johnson on Tuesday seemed to blow all hopes of a deal out of the water. Downing street sources, breaking with diplomatic tradition, briefed the BBC and others on what they said that the Chancellor had said.
The Downing Street version — that she hardened the EU position to the point that no deal could ever be possible — is disputed in Berlin, Brussels and Paris. Merkel, they insist, was merely repeating a long-held EU position: that there must be some form of customs union on the island of Ireland to prevent the recreation of the border dissolved by the Good Friday peace agreement.
“It seems there is still a negotiation, or battle, still going on within the British government or within Downing Street,” a French official said. “Without going into details, the mood of Johnson’s call with Macron was very different from the briefing to the British press before and after call with Merkel.”
Some French officials have reached the conclusion that Macron was wrong about Johnson in August. They believe that Johnson set up a sham negotiation, always intending to blame the EU when it failed.
The Johnson proposals finally tabled last week were a “bizarre concoction”, they say, “a genuine attempt” to bridge differences, spliced with other proposals that the EU could never accept.
The EU says that any deal must meet three tests. It must keep open the Irish border and preserve an “all-Ireland” economy. It must preserve the integrity of the EU single market. It must be legally enforceable and not just a “trust us” promise.
By accepting a single Irish and EU space for farm and all other goods, the Johnson proposal went some way towards points one and two. By giving the Democratic Unionist Party a de facto veto on this arrangement, the Johnson offer trampled points two and three. By insisting on customs checks within Ireland, it infringed points one and two — and reneged on a solemn promise made twice by the previous UK government.
There is also a fourth French objection to the Johnson plan — one that France stresses more than other EU countries. Theresa May’s agreement with the EU promised a level playing field in employment, industrial and other regulations between the UK and the EU. Johnson has abandoned that pledge.
France fears that, combined with a back-door into the EU market through Ireland, this would give Britain an unfair competitive advantage.
French officials say that Johnson’s tactics, perhaps muddled by the differences within his own team, have been calamitous. He is now, in effect, offering the EU three choices: No Deal Now; No Deal Later; or a Bad Deal.
“In those circumstances, the EU has nothing much to lose,” a senior official said. “It can delay again and hope that Johnson will lose the inevitable election and be replaced by a different, more reasonable government.”
“The most likely outcome is … wait and see.”