Emmanuel Macron now wants to force Britain out of the EU – and fast

Sean O'Grady
PA

It is a too little appreciated fact that France can expel Britain from the European Union. President Macron can do this by simply refusing to re-open the Withdrawal Agreement and by vetoing any further extension to the Article 50 procedure. Thus, even if the British Parliament were to “seize back” control and seek more time for, say, a general election, Emmanuel Macron could still say “Non!” He might even do so if the UK asks for the time to hold another referendum – though that be a lot tougher for him to pull off.

Macron holds the power to end the unending Brexit crisis, and his exasperation is palpable.

But will he?

He has a huge incentive to do so. On the one hand his fishing industry, some exporters and the northern ports would no doubt urge him to do a deal and, preferably, keep Britain in the EU. Free trade is better than no trade; the Brexiteers make a perfectly good point about that.

However the president also has his eye on the wider French national economic interest. Poaching jobs and lucrative business from the City of London and Canary Wharf would help Paris eclipse London. Manufacturing displaced from the UK could come to France. Peugeot can take the production of Vauxhall cars from Ellesmere Port, as they have stated, and Toyota could be persuaded to consolidate their French operations by transferring the work from Deeside and Derbyshire. Others would follow, seeking refuge in a core EU single market member.

Macron also knows that even if they stayed in, the British would always be a moaning, whingeing reluctant drag on his ambition for “more Europe”. It seems obvious that any proposal to give the EU the right to directly levy taxes or control UK tax levels, public spending or borrowing would be outright rejected by the UK – including Corbyn’s Labour Party. So would any federalist moves toward political integration and financial transfers to sustain weaker Southern European economies. Or greater defence cooperation – the much-feared “Euro army”, which will be essential if, or when, the US abandons Nato.

It is très simple: the French cannot build the Europe they desire with Britain in the club. They have watched as even those leaders who initially wanted to be at the heart of Europe, such as John Major and Tony Blair eventually gave up and fell out – over anything from BSE infected beef to structural reform and the Iraq war.

The last and only British leader with any enthusiasm for Europe was Ted Heath, and he left Downing Street in 1974. Since then the British have behaved, with brief interludes, like tanked up England hooligans at an Uefa match.

Macron knows Europe has troubles enough without the Brexit distraction. Italy, the euro, the banks, the threat of recession in Germany, the authoritarian rebellious Poles and Hungarians, migration – that is more than enough without messing about with Boris or Corbyn. He spies opportunities for the French interest and to make France, once again, assume political leadership of Europe. Macron sees a chance to become that Napoleonic, or at least Gaullist, figure making Europe great again; the anti-Trump.

When Angela Merkel retires, Macron will certainly wish to seize that opportunity and make the progress on his personal project he has failed to make in France, but this time at the European level.

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Back in the spring he almost prevailed in kicking the perfidious Brits out. When Theresa May asked for the Article 50 extension that is about to expire now, it was up to EU leaders how long, if any, an extension we would be granted. Donald Tusk and Merkel wanted a year or more: Macron just wanted to say “Non”. They compromised on the six months that runs out shortly, time extravagantly wasted.

There are only two things that could stop a Macron veto. The first is if the German instinct to be patient and generous prevails once again. After all Chancellor Merkel has just offered Johnson 30 days to solve Brexit, hasn’t she? Well, no, because she has heard all the silly talk about technological solutions to the Irish backstop before, and no new ones will be found in four weeks flat. It was a kindly throwaway remark that had been taken all too seriously by the delirious British. Her basic policy – no renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement – remains. She too is a European.

The second way out is for the Commons to revoke – cancel – Article 50 and postpone it until we’ve recovered our sanity. We need time to think, decide and plan. That is what Ken Clarke wants to do, but it probably wouldn’t win a vote of MPs.

And so were are in the old familiar place – a British internal deadlock, a stalemate that is confounding the entire political class and making the country ungovernable. We cannot determine our own future even when we seek to “take back control”. How ironic that it will be a French president who makes the decision for us.