2017 was the year France won and Britain lost. French President Emmanuel Macron emerged to transform a sclerotic political scene, dazzling the world and many in his country with a youthful energy that made French rejuvenation a buzzword. British Prime Minister Theresa May stumbled from one hiccup to the next, rushing to Washington for an awkward meeting with United States President Donald Trump, triggering Article 50 with no plan for the aftermath, and losing her majority in parliament.
Macron made headlines with slogans such as “Let’s make the planet great again”. May’s mantras — from “global Britain” to “Brexit means Brexit” — backfired or seemed to go nowhere. Macron secured a solid base in the national assembly for his upstart La Republique en Marche party. He made sweeping, lyrical speeches about Europe, heralding a new era of empowerment and European sovereignty. May went to Florence, in a worthy attempt to build bridges with Europe, despite everything. But what mostly got noted was that the United Kingdom would pay its dues to the European Union (EU) — an early sign of bowing to the inevitable as her Brexit negotiating team prepared to align itself with conditions laid out by Brussels.
For these two former global, colonial powers who must now grapple with a fast-changing world where punching above your weight is no longer so easy, 2017 surely marked Gallic triumph and British misery. But would the French be right to gloat? If things continue like this in 2018, no one will stand to gain. Granted, Europe has other powerful players, not least Germany, but the relationship between these two large neighbours across the Channel matters all the same.
The French have always faced accusations of arrogance, tempted as they’ve been to see Europe as an extension of their country. And many Brits were always only half-convinced — if half-informed — about what the EU was all about in the first place (not just a single market). History and domestic politics in Britain account for much of this.
But France has a lot to lose if Britain turns its back on Europe. To say “good riddance”, as former French prime minister Michel Rocard once said, is short-sightedness. Brexit has now become a process so tedious and drawn out that we’ve almost forgotten the shock of that morning of June 24, 2016.
Parts of France’s establishment have long thought of Britain as a contrarian force in the European club. Charles De Gaulle was right to block the British, goes that line of thought. For one thing, British-led EU enlargement to the Eastern Europe — in fact, Europe’s reunification — diluted France’s sense of being the indispensable cornerstone. Europe’s centre of gravity shifted to Berlin, and in the following decade, Germany did much better than France.
So it has been tempting for some in Paris to relish the thought of going back to some sort of “core” Europe model: A cosy group holding close to the vision of the “founding fathers” of the 1950s.
This won’t fly. The world has changed. Europe has changed. Forces that have the potential to undermine it have not dissipated — from Moscow to Ankara, from entrenched populist movements to the cyber-world, from migration to the many impacts of unregulated globalisation.
For all the talk about Europe surviving (or even being galvanised by) Brexit and Trump, Britain’s current crash course out of the EU remains as damaging a move for all as it was deemed to be 18 months ago. Brexit will represent the first European breakup in 60 years — a wound whose ultimate consequences we have yet to fathom.
Britain is rocked by polarisation and internal divisions, but it remains a strong democracy — carrying values that today can hardly be taken for granted. Given this, France and Britain have special responsibilities, not least in the United Nations, where the very principle of international cooperation is under threat. Some of those who think Brexit can be made to work will believe the cracks in the liberal order it will open up can be papered over. But there will be a cost. Authoritarians and fanatics alike are waiting to capitalise.
If Macron really is the saviour of Europe he wants to be, then he should say something to help to prevent Brexit. Why couldn’t his eloquence and daring be deployed? A window of opportunity may open up next summer, when it will become increasingly clear that Brexit is a near-impossible task, both in scale and in timing. This is not to suggest France should move to carve out new conditions or exceptions for Britain — that simply won’t happen. The EU, in these Brexit talks, is focused on its self-preservation as a bloc, and that includes a big “no” to a bespoke deal that might transform the single market into gruyere cheese: Full of holes.
In 2016, the then US president Barack Obama, a man Macron in many ways likes to imitate, delivered a speech in Hanover addressed not to governments but to “the people of Europe”. It is striking that, as Europe’s leaders keep talking of “unity”, they mostly tend to reach out to their domestic, national constituencies. Macron has shown he can look beyond. Why not reach out to the British people in this historic moment?
Why not say: We would like you to stay, we are not seeking to benefit from your departure nor to harm you, and we still have so much to achieve together? Why not say: Some of the trends that led to Brexit, among them inequality and a broken social fabric, are problems France and others on the continent also have to deal with? Why not plunge into historical references in which the salvation of France was made possible, thanks to Britain’s courage, and now, nearly 80 years on, show French courage in return?
Yes, there are risks attached to this. Hardline Brexiters will scream about external meddling — even worse that it comes from the sneaky French. The radical Left will perhaps point to Macron’s banking past. Many Britons may well just shrug. But some may also rethink, and feel that maybe Brexit doesn’t have to happen.
What does Macron have to lose? At the moment, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, can’t deliver such a speech because she is tied up with domestic uncertainties. With Germany still unclear about its choices, Macron’s Eurozone reform plans have little hope of taking shape next year, if ever. But he can really make a difference — and a groundbreaking one — in becoming the first, strong continental voice to make the case for stopping Brexit’s collective wrecking ball. If that happened, 2018 will be a Franco-British success story, not a messy divorce. En marche to that!
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Natalie Nougayrede is a columnist, leader writer and foreign affairs commentator for the Guardian.