At the last session of the European Council, France stood almost alone in pushing back against a postponed Brexit. Commentators in Brussels felt relieved: They could unearth the usual clichés of a France hooked on national independence. For the last two years, French President Emmanuel Macron, with his strong pro-European engagement, looked like shifting away from the Gaullist tradition. His lonely stance last week was therefore reassuring: It had all the flavor of the good old days.
When France voted against the launch of fresh EU-U.S. trade discussions, it seemed to confirm this trend. Yet the narrative of French isolation may be a little far-fetched. France did not actually block the decision to start the new trade talks. Its stance was a tactic to prevent trade becoming a toxic issue in the ongoing European electoral campaign.
The French position on Brexit is of a different nature. It raises three fundamental questions over the whole Brexit debate, which deserve close attention.
Should There Be A Second Brexit Referendum?
The first one relates to the possibility of revisiting the Brexit vote. This thought has been very much at the back of the minds of many EU leaders, as the UK Parliament appears week after week deadlocked in its efforts to find a solution. In truth, beyond the specific question of moving the deadline for Brexit to October 30, it is the issue of a second referendum and how to make it possible that has driven the conversation between the EU-27 leaders. For most of them a new referendum represents the most desired option, and it is one they think can still be brought to fruition.
A long delay allowing the British Parliament to go for a second popular consultation while British voters are given time to think again about the pros and cons of leaving Europe could be the natural way out of the current stalemate. The unpredictable outcome of a new referendum reinforces the argument in favor of giving the British government time to unfold this tactical move.
The EU is no stranger to second referendums. When Denmark and Ireland rejected the Maastricht and the Nice Treaties, both were coaxed back to the mainstream with tailor-made concessions and a new referendum. It is no wonder such course of action attracts a lot of sympathy in European ranks.
The French government departs from that assessment. Although conscious of the considerable damage Brexit will cause to Britain and all of the EU countries, it thinks that a second referendum would further polarize and destabilize British politics, and risk alienating a large constituency of UK citizens that would feel cheated of the vote they made in 2016. It senses that, by promoting this course, Europeans may be acting selfishly, endangering the cohesiveness of British society and its democratic institutions.
France has mixed memories of its own experience with the 2005 referendum to decide if France should ratify the proposed European Constitution. At that time, French voters rejected the draft Constitutional Treaty, only to be sidelined four years later by the government’s decision to push the Lisbon Treaty (which effectively replaced the first unratified treaty) through a simple vote in the French Parliament. This confrontation between direct and representative democracy still feeds today’s anti-European, anti-elite sentiment in France. Its lingering effects can be seen in the yellow jackets protests.
So, to the French, the fallout of a referendum vote—which is in essence sensitive to populist influence—remains divisive. They see a second Brexit consultation as a perilous, uncertain path. In spite of supporters gathered in the streets of London and on social networks, a new popular consultation still looks totally unacceptable to many British voters. A second referendum could feed political unrest and lead to permanent instability, whatever its result.
Contrary to the belief that France thrives on schadenfreude when dealing with Brexit, the motivation behind the French attitude has more to do with genuine angst over the growing political divide in Europe between the elites and citizens who feel ignored. Seen from Paris, the Brexit standoff is just one more illustration of that confrontation. It epitomizes the anger prevailing all over Europe, from which no European nation is immune. Buying time, rather than addressing the heart of the matter, will not solve the Brexit problem. It may even make things worse.
Is A Drawn-Out Brexit Already Sowing Discord in the European Union?
France’s second concern is that Brexit is slowly undermining the functioning of the Union. This cannot come as a surprise. Despite shows of goodwill and promises of equanimity, any protracted divorce stirs suspicion and animosity. In the case of Brexit, the strain is showing, and not only in the negotiations around the withdrawal deal. In the daily activities of the European Council and the European Parliament’s legislative process, UK officials and MEPs are in an awkward situation—on their way out, yet still full actors in the mundane work of the Union. Leaders may not be entirely aware of the current mood deep in the bowels of EU institutions, but it is one of disillusionment and festering distrust—rarely an enticing prospect for constructive progress. Accepting repeated extensions of the Brexit deadline reinforces this drift.
The legal constraint on Britain to take part in the upcoming European elections will make this toxic atmosphere worse. It is not only in the UK that the prospect of British MEPs sitting in the Strasbourg hemicycle for an undefined tenure sounds surreal. It makes no sense to the population in all 27 other nations. For some time now, European citizens have suffered Brexit fatigue. They simply ignore the many intricacies of the divorce negotiations and the details of the Irish backstop. But the election of 73 British MEPs, while Britain is on the verge of leaving the EU, has a much more concrete aspect that makes it immediately understood and rejected. Such are the negative consequences of the repetitive extensions of article 50—and they can only result in more animosity.
Will Allowing Drawn-Out Deliberations Revive a Stereotype of Incompetent European Bureaucrats?
The third concern is an overall challenge to the EU’s image. The risk is a growing perception of an inefficient and hesitant EU. The exceptional unity shown by 27 member states during the withdrawal negotiations is slowly being replaced by a more traditional vision of an undecided Europe, all too ready to procrastinate. With the possibility of more repetitive postponements, this rare success story of European solidarity may soon be overtaken by populist accusations of European wishy-washiness, and of betraying the will of the British people.
Mismanaging the last steps of the Brexit saga reintroduces a stereotype that the populists seemed ready to leave aside, but which they perceive now as a possible winner. This is why, having argued until now that the decision process at this late stage of the Brexit talks belongs entirely to the British government, the 27 other EU states may soon face the responsibility of deciding for themselves, as political pressure grows at home in the midst of the European elections campaign.
At the last European Council, France’s reservations irritated more than one other delegation, and such frustration can be legitimate. Yet the French position raises questions that cannot be entirely disregarded. Other EU members need to take more seriously the depth of the rift in British politics and within British society. They must also take account of Brexit fatigue in their home countries, which will ultimately benefit the Euro-skeptic camp. The time of European unity on Brexit may be ending. Future European Council sessions could be more difficult to handle.
In truth, the EU is paying the price for its success. For most of the Brexit negotiations, the EU demonstrated its perfect mastery of the step-by-step negotiating process that it imposed upon its UK counterparts. But this came to the detriment of a fluid outcome, as European negotiators lost along the way their British partner, who seems today more and more unable to swallow the final deal.
Whoever is to be blamed for the current gridlock, such a situation threatens both sides. If the British government cannot come up with a solution, and noone is ready to accept a no-deal, the time may come sooner than later when the remaining EU members will have to think about another way out of this standoff. That will no longer be an endless extension of the Brexit deadline. If the French attitude has provided this wake-up call, it will have been worthwhile.