Brexit is least of Macron’s concerns

by Paul Taylor | 08.05.2017

PARIS – The strains of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the EU’s anthem, rang out as France’s new president walked solemnly through the Cour Napoleon of the Louvre Palace to deliver his first public address after winning Sunday’s election run-off against an anti-EU nationalist by a thumping two-to-one margin.

The contrast could hardly have been more stark between Emmanuel Macron’s enthusiastically pro-European campaign, in which supporters waved EU flags and the candidate openly espoused deeper European integration, and Theresa May’s emerging general election strategy of demanding a strong mandate to stand up to the rest of the EU, depicted as ganging up to punish Britain in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.

Despite much of the British media’s reflex to interpret the French election through the Brexit prism, dealing with the UK’s departure is low on Macron’s “to do” list. His top priorities are to win a majority for his new centrist movement En Marche! in parliamentary elections next month and to start implementing pledges to overhaul labour law, boost education in deprived areas, and ease the tax burden on business and poorer households. His first weeks will also be spent on strengthening France’s relations with Germany, the EU and the United States.

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Indeed the 39-year-old president is likely to treat the Brexit issue largely as a sideshow in his ambition to revive the Franco-German partnership and drive forward a strengthening of the euro zone and increased European cooperation on internal security and defence. To cement his credibility with Berlin, he will focus on economic reform and fiscal discipline at home, and embrace the firm German line on the conduct of the Brexit negotiations.

Tough on Brexit

The new French leader values British cooperation on defence and internal security and will want to preserve and build on the Lancaster House agreements on military cooperation. But it is not clear that he will be willing to pay a political price for that by softening the financial and trade terms of Brexit. Like Angela Merkel, he is likely to want to let the European Commission and chief negotiator Michel Barnier, another pro-EU Frenchman, handle the negotiations.

Macron’s top economic adviser, Jean Pisani-Ferry, told the BBC’s Today programme this morning that the incoming French leader had no desire to punish the UK, and no one had an interest in a hard Brexit. But he also said “there will be a tough negotiation and he will be tough… He is not the kind of man who would implicitly agree to a sort of dismantling of the EU. He’s very keen on building more integration, especially in the euro zone.”

Other influential voices in Macron’s entourage, such as liberal MEP Sylvie Goulard, his strongest link to Germany, are determined that Britain should not enjoy any privileged market access once it leaves the EU, notably for the financial services industry. Goulard was critical of the modest deal EU leaders reached with David Cameron last year in an effort to head off a vote for Brexit.

Macron’s domestic political strategy will be to build on his presidential election success by projecting his movement as the sole guarantor of an open, European, liberal but protective France against the nationalist, anti-EU forces of Marine Le Pen’s National Front and the eurosceptic, anti-globalisation far-left of Jean-Luc Melenchon. He will try to bypass and marginalise the mainstream conservatives and socialists, cherry-picking moderate talent from their ranks.

Brexit served as a foil for Macron’s rise. An important sub-theme of his campaign was that France would show the world it could turn back the tide of nationalism, bigotry and populism that had swept Britain and the United States. That will shape how he approaches a Brexit settlement.

Edited by Hugo Dixon