PARIS — Emmanuel Macron is ready to make Brexit hurt — but only insofar as Britain’s pain makes Europe stronger.
Fresh from diplomatic highs with U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the French president sees little interest in picking fights with London during Brexit talks. Nor does he want to exploit the domestic miseries of Prime Minister Theresa May, according to two sources familiar with Macron’s thinking.
With his sights set on a “reset” of the European Union through reform, Paris will pursue a pragmatic approach to Brexit talks, which started this week in Brussels.
But Macron does not want the European Commission, which negotiates on behalf of member countries, to go easy on Britain. Instead, officials said, he sees Brexit as a grand opportunity to leverage Franco-German influence on the global stage, drive integration and press ahead with reforms that Britain would normally have opposed from inside the EU tent.
That means seeking to assert EU interests on matters like Britain’s “financial passport” or euro clearing rights for the Continent, as Brexit talks get under way.
In the long term, Macron’s aim is to forge a post-British compact for the EU — one in which continental powers are freed from London’s liberalizing influence on trade and other fronts. According to the same officials, specific areas where Macron is ready to charge ahead in parallel with Brexit talks include:
Trade: Macron will press the EU this week to develop bolder and nimbler anti-dumping tools, including a centralized “alert” platform to warn of unfair trade practices — changes Britain would have opposed.
Defense: He’ll set the ball rolling on “permanent structured cooperation” on defense, kickstarting joint procurement and some operations — another proposal Britain does not like.
Eurozone integration: Down the line, after German elections, Macron will drive integration via harmonization of fiscal and welfare schemes as well as moving forward with a eurozone budget and finance minister. German Chancellor Angela Merkel endorsed the moves this week, against British wishes.
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The end result, the officials said, would be a stronger EU, and Britain finding it has lost, not gained, sovereignty in the process. And no amount of cozying up to Trump will compensate for London’s reduced influence on the Continent, they added.
“There is no desire to punish Britain … but we will probably end up seeing that Britain has lost its voice on many issues that are of direct interest,” added the diplomat. “Even the Brexiteers are starting to recognize this now.”
Leading from behind
For all his ambition to be the new François Mitterrand to Angela Merkel’s Helmut Kohl, Macron wants to lead from far behind in Brexit talks, letting the Commission be the public face of the negotiations rather than throwing his weight around in public.
The reasons for this are both procedural — the Commission, not member countries like France, has the mandate to negotiate — and tactical.
The French establishment feared a potential “Frexit” as long as Marine Le Pen was within striking distance of the presidency, but Brexit is now far down the list of domestic political concerns. So Macron has no interest in getting into spats over fishing rights, the fate of British holiday home owners in Dordogne or the Le Touquet border control treaty that many in the country blame for the creation of migrant camps like the one in Calais.
Where he does have a powerful interest is in showing voters he can revive Franco-German ties and make good on his promise of leading Europe into a new dawn. This requires trumpeting Franco-German chumminess at every chance, like this week when the two countries put forward joint proposals to EU peers, or in July when France and Germany will hold a joint summit. The message to London in both cases: You won’t get in the way of our blooming diplomatic romance.
In Brexit talks, the lead-from-behind approach means deferring to Barnier — a former French minister — on all questions, at least in public. This way, France avoids looking like a “bad cop” while being assured its interests are well represented by a man who knows them intimately.
Most of all, Macron wants to stop Britain from driving a wedge between EU member countries, striking side deals or doing anything that would reduce the leverage of 27 states against one. And his team is convinced that when it comes to Brexit, for once, the EU is unified.
“It’s one side-effect of constant crisis, over Greece, migration, etc — we’ve learned how to talk to each other,” said another diplomat close to the president. “On Brexit there is pretty broad agreement.”
Macron’s approach on Brexit means that France has no equivalent to David Davis, no “Mr. Brexit.”
Instead, several key officials inside and outside the president’s office will follow the dossier. While Macron’s chief diplomatic adviser Philippe Étienne will help the president fathom Germany’s shifting political tides, Clément Beaune, a 35-year-old adviser on Europe and the G20, will be Macron’s No. 1 “Brexit whisperer” in the halls of power.
A graduate of the elite ENA school of public administration, Beaune has been at Macron’s side since the president was economy minister under François Hollande.
Beaune advised Macron, the then-minister on EU and international affairs, helping him craft the push against Chinese steel dumping that is now at the heart of the president’s broader vision for a more defensive EU trade policy. At the Élysée, Beaune is seconded by two technical advisers, Alexandre Adam and Nicolas Jégou.
Outside the president’s office, Philippe Léglise-Costa is France’s most senior Europe hand. At the head of the General Secretariat for European Affairs, which answers to the prime minister’s office, Léglise-Costa brings deep insight into the EU decision-making process, as well as five years of frontline experience from battling crisis after crisis under Hollande. Léglise-Costa also headed a working group that spent months gaming out Brexit negotiations and establishing French positions.
One blank spot in the French Brexit team is who will succeed Pierre Sellal, France’s veteran former ambassador to Brussels. One source named Léglise-Costa as a possible successor, but clues as to the president’s thinking on this are few and far between.
Of course, nobody will do as much to shape France’s approach to Brexit, and to European reform, as Macron himself.
During his time as an adviser to Hollande, Macron was known as a cheerful presence at all-night negotiations over Greece and a quiet supporter of Athens remaining in the eurozone. He took an ardent interest in EU affairs, identifying both France’s declining influence in Brussels and the political benefit of its historic role as a builder and visionary member of the bloc.
It was during his stint as economy minister, however, that Macron developed more pointed views on how Europe should evolve: away from free-trade orthodoxy, toward a “Europe first” vision that advocates swift reprisals for dumping and more robust mechanisms for balancing out unfair competition situations between European states.
His efforts to beef up European defenses against Chinese steel dumping foreshadowed the assertive approach he will bring to Brussels this week.
“The president will bring his vision of a protective Europe to the European Council,” an adviser to the president said this week. “We consider that Europe does not go far enough, does not react quickly enough when we face a situation of unfair competition, or when inside Europe we have fraud and abuses.”
Vis-à-vis Britain and its post-Brexit relationship with France, Macron took tough positions during his campaign. He argued in favor of being “more demanding” of Britain on the handling of migrants at the border crossing in Calais, hinting at a possible renegotiation of the Le Touquet treaty.
He also appealed directly to British financial services workers, urging them to come and work in France. However, now that the campaign is over, and British applications for French passports are skyrocketing (up 254 percent in a year but from a low base), Macron is less interested in casting Brexit as a Franco-British matter.
Instead, he wants to emphasize cooperation on security, as he did last week when he unveiled a joint program to combat online jihadist propaganda at a dinner with May at which the Le Touquet Treaty was not raised. France will “continue to seek stronger engagement” on migrant processing, as well as a financial contribution and help with unaccompanied minors, said the aide — but these are Franco-British concerns only tangentially linked to the Brexit talks.
Overall, Macron can be expected to bring the same ice-cold approach to Brexit talks that he brought to his reading of France’s political situation, which allowed him to seize the presidency at age 39. He will assess power dynamics, identify opportunities to assert leverage, and strike with maximum effect when he sees a chance to press his agenda on Europe.
With Merkel’s announcement that she supports his idea for a eurozone budget and finance minister, it looks as though momentum is moving in his direction — again.