Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, waits in the courtyard of Elysee Palace ahead of the arrival of Xi Jinping, China’s president, in Paris, France. (Photographer: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg)

Emmanuel Macron Keeps a Door Open for the British

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Emmanuel Macron is basking in the spotlight of Brexit. His performance at last week’s summit of European leaders, in which he took a tough line publicly against the U.K.’s desperate request for a delay to the March 29th deadline, has been compared to Charles de Gaulle’s repeated refusal to let Britain join the European Community in the 1960s. An unconditional delay? Non. A postponement that might impact EU elections in May? Non. More help to get Theresa May’s deal past her divided parliament? Non, non, non. Macron and his ministers, in tune with pro-European public opinion at home, appeared to stand firm. 

Yet Paris is more flexible than all of this suggests. Behind the scenes, in the thick of the fraught summit, Macron was open about finding ways to play a tactical game to help Prime Minister Theresa May. His opposition to an unconditional delay was dropped. The double-pronged “Brextension” that he backed did not rule out something even longer eventually, possibly into the summer or through to 2020. Macron is keeping pathways clear for the U.K. to return to the European fold. He may end up more like De Gaulle’s successor, Georges Pompidou – also a former Rothschild banker – who famously let the Brits in.

France has competing priorities on Brexit. Civil servants and bankers close to the finance ministry were focused at first on grabbing business from the City of London. But the triumphalism has faded. Now the worry is the potential impact of a no-deal Brexit on France’s 3.5 billion euro ($4 billion) trade surplus with Britain. A U.K. departure without agreement could cost France 3 billion euros of exports in 2019, according to credit specialist Euler Hermes, at a time when economic indicators already point to sputtering French demand. That wouldn’t help defuse the Gilets Jaunes street protests. 

So Macron’s tweets promising his citizens that the country is ready for a no-deal Brexit aren’t convincing. Anyone taking the Eurostar from Paris in recent weeks will have found out how many hours customs checks can add to a train journey, thanks to striking officials. The same goes for goods trucks backed up outside Calais. And no one knows how bad things might get for the fishing industry, which could find itself excluded from catch-rich U.K. waters overnight. Agriculture minister Didier Guillaume says no fishery would be allowed to “go to the wall” because of Brexit, but the promise of financial compensation sounds feeble to those who fear a repeat of last summer’s “scallop war” between British and French fishing boats.

Politically, too, Brexit is complicated for Macron. It’s true that his strategy for the European elections – pitched as a rerun of the 2017 presidential race that pitted the pro-EU reformist against the far-right figurehead Marine Le Pen – benefits from Britain’s obvious dysfunction and the salutary lesson it offers to euroskeptics. Macron’s party is polling just ahead of Le Pen’s in France, by 23 percent to 22 percent. Preventing the U.K. from taking part in those elections would be preferable, given Macron’s ambitions of forging a federalist bloc to rival the center-right and populist parties. 

But Paris is also unwilling to alienate a neighbor that holds a seat on the UN Security Council and has the biggest military budget in the EU. Macron’s campaign missive to European voters sketched out a new EU security council that would include the U.K. as a partner. He sealed a new bilateral pact with Theresa May on the Franco-British border in 2018, keeping it where it is (in France) in exchange for more funding. The U.K. and France deepened their cooperation on defense not that long ago, and in diplomatic areas like the Iran nuclear deal.

Hence why the Elysee Palace is said to be preparing more quietly for a Brexit delay beyond May or June, including asking for British commitments to not impede the smooth running of the EU if the country does indeed take part in European elections. Paris doesn’t want to be the Brexit scapegoat.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.