The view from Brussels: Johnson’s French problem

2 Mar 2020

DRD’s Partner in Brussels, Tamlin Vickers, shares his views on the EU and UK trade negotiations, with a special focus on ‘the French problem’.

Out of the starting blocks

This morning, Britain’s chief EU trade negotiator David Frost, along with 100 officials, will arrive in Brussels to kick-start talks on the UK and EU’s future relationship. Commentators have focused on the yawning divide between the two sides’ opening positions, which were published last week. There are undoubtedly differences on key points of substance, which will make reaching a deal challenging – the UK’s position on fishing rights or the EU’s stringent demands on a level playing field, to take two examples, are punchy to say the least – but tough opening positions are to be expected, as they provide wiggle room to make concessions down the line.

With a bit of pragmatism one can see a path to a compromise. To be sure, it would require both sides to row back on their opening positions and would entail a sizeable dollop of fudge. But an agreement not to undercut labour and environmental standards, for example, should be manageable, likely with reference to international standards. The EU will be tougher on state aid but an acceptable compromise is still conceivable. The principal obstacle to achieving a deal is not substance but politics, and in particular French politics.

Enter France

President Macron’s guiding strategy on Brexit has been to use it as a means to hold off the populist challenge within France, principally that coming from Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National but also from the populist left. As far back as 2017 when Macron was yet to win the presidency, he said: ‘I don’t want an approach where the British have the best of two worlds; that will be too big an incentive for others to leave and kill the European idea’. France took the most hard-line position throughout negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement.

While public support for ‘Frexit’ has waned thanks to the apparent chaos that has unfolded in Britain since the 2016 vote, a successful Brexit would revive the pressure. With Macron’s approval ratings continuing to slide in the wake of attempts to reform the pension system and with a presidential election on the horizon in 2022, he has little to gain from the EU giving the UK a favourable trade deal. Macron knows that channeling his inner De Gaulle (who twice vetoed the UK’s accession) and standing up to Germany will play well for him domestically.

Other member states to the rescue?

Perhaps the best hope of a deal being reached lies in the growing exasperation of other member states towards France’s approach. Macron is the most powerful politician in Europe at the moment but there are limits to what he can achieve. He has ruffled feathers, for example through his outspoken criticism of NATO and by opposing plans to start EU accession for North Macedonia and Albania.

If towards the end of this year, France is seen to be intent on damaging the prospects of a deal with the UK, some member states might lose patience. That is not to say these other countries do not care about protecting their interests; the integrity of the Single Market is considered sacrosanct – and the German car manufacturers will certainly not be riding to the UK’s rescue – but other leaders do not face the same domestic pressures as Macron and will be more inclined to be pragmatic. For the sake of avoiding no-deal, let’s hope they get their way.

PHOTO: Thierry Chesnot, Getty Images Europe