22 May 2017

The new Franco-German alliance spells trouble for Brexit

By Lukas Lausen

Decades ago, Konrad Adenauer, then chancellor of Germany, allegedly asked Winston Churchill to join the European community to “not let us alone with the more or less hysterical French”.

Today, the tables have been turned. While Theresa May has, at best, an awkward relationship with European leaders, the election of Emmanuel Macron has reinvigorated the bond between Germany and France. Diplomatic sources in Berlin and Paris argue in unison that both countries’ leaders now agree on one thing: let’s get rid of these hysterical Brits once and for all.

The election of Macron is the dawn of a new phase in the European Union. After years and years of crises and only very limited and hesitant increases in cooperation, the new French president has the mandate and the will to push for more union as well as fundamental reforms of the project.

This comes at a time when EU unity is under challenge from many fronts. In Hungary and Poland, the rule of law and liberal democracy itself is at risk, the economies of large parts of Southern Europe are still mired in difficulty, and in many countries, anti-EU populism thrives. It seems likely, therefore, that a multi-speed Europe, involving different forms of integration, will be the way forward.

While this certainly is not the ideal starting point for the reborn Franco-German alliance between Macron and Angela Merkel, it makes one thing perfectly clear: there is no time, money or political will to make Brexit a priority.

Moreover, to keep the rest of the member states in order, there is a growing consensus among political elites in Paris and Berlin that the UK’s deal should be “ok at best”, and that the EU has little to lose if the UK were simply to exit without any deal at all: Brexit as Braccident.

The starting position assumed by the British in the Brexit negotiations was incredibly weak. Even though Theresa May’s boring “Brexit means Brexit” mantra was finally replaced with something akin to a strategy, the Continent widely views this wish-list as out-of-touch, illusory and blatantly naïve.

Surely, given the election of Macron, the emergence of a stronger relationship between Paris and Berlin, and the clear objective to push the EU towards deeper integration and more cooperation, the penny must eventually drop for Mrs May. The UK is not going to get a better deal outside the EU than inside; in fact, it’s not going to get much of a deal at all.

For France and Germany, Mr Macron’s election primarily means that Mrs May and her Brexit boys will have to dial back domestic expectations, and to re-evaluate their own negotiating position.

Here’s how I think it will play out. David Davis, Boris Johnson and Mrs May will soon claim that circumstances have changed on the Continent and that EU-leaders are deliberately undermining the British position (which of course will be true).

They will use the arrival of Macron and the new tighter links between Berlin and Paris to claim they have been forced to re-evaluate their own strategy. But make no mistake, all that’s happened is they’ve recognised their own weakness.

After all, one tactic has already been thwarted. The team had hoped to “divide and conquer”, simply ignoring the EU as a bloc and instead lobbying, playing and negotiating with individual governments in an attempt to secure the best possible deal.

The PM and her ministers went on a grand tour to that end. But each approach was met with the same answer: “We do not negotiate Brexit, talk to Brussels.” Even before the election of a super-European in Paris, the EU was sticking together, and now Mr Macron has made clear he will not claim special interests for France but focus solely on what’s best for the Union as a whole.

The new French President’s position will only make it harder, if not impossible, for Mrs May’s government to play off the Europeans against each other.

The last time Franco-German unity against the British was as strong was in 2003, when they decided the Iraq war was a very poor decision and chose to stay out of it. What Bush’s war on Saddam Hussein was to Chirac and Schröder, May’s ridiculous strategy to have her cake and eat it is to Merkel and Macron.

Lukas Lausen was an assistant in the Danish government’s department for EU-coordination, and an aide to Anders Fogh Rasmussen. He is currently studying at the Blavatnik School of Politics, Oxford