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Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.
In the unlikely event that Vince Cable gets his way with what he laughably calls a “first referendum” on Brexit’s “facts”, I wager that Leave would win a stonking landslide. The electorate would probably dislike being told that they didn’t answer the question correctly the first time. Then there’s the fact that – as Caroline Flint sagely observed at an Open Europe event yesterday – many voted remain out of a better the “devil you know” caution (something that wouldn’t work for a re-run). But there’s a crucial new development. Emmanuel Macron seems determined to prove that Brexiteers’ fears about the federal aspirations of Europe were right all along. Yet he doesn’t need to do this single handedly: Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission President, offered another uber-federalist model two weeks ago.
One argument runs that the British are somehow especially distinct from the rest of Europe, and that this provides a reason for British euroscepticism. Theresa May played to this in Florence when she almost said “it’s not EU, it’s me” in describing our Brexit breakaway. In explaining euroscepticism, some point to our island story, our imperial/globalist past, our absolute parliamentary sovereignty or common law traditions, the Anglo-Saxon mentality, or some other element of our national history and narrative. Others blame our vibrant tabloid media, almost suggesting that if things EU were presented in a less “bendy bananas” more “isn’t Erasmus wonderful” way, we would be the sort of country in which newly-elected prime ministers walk into Downing Street accompanied by the Ode to Joy.
As the French President knows all too well, those arguments are wrong, not least in France. Emmanuel Macron said as much at a meeting with George Osborne, back when they were both finance ministers. Macron questioned why the British were planning a referendum on EU membership, saying – I was told by an attendee – “we know what would happen if we asked that question” in France. He’s right. The EU, and its most visible creations, the euro and Schengen, have profound legitimacy problems. A prime reason these came to a head in the UK is because of the responsiveness of our political system rather than any other exceptionalism.
The French have had a complex relationship with the European project from the beginning. Their Assembly voted down participation in the European Defence Community in 1954. Larry Siedentop’s excellent primer on the EU, Democracy in Europe, suggested that the French were happy with Europe as long as they could dominate it. Part of the reason why Charles de Gaulle said “non” to British accession in 1963 and 1965 was his concern that the UK would pull Europe in a more Anglo-Saxon and Atlanticist direction. In 1965, he caused a crisis by empty-chairing the European Council in protest against – amongst other things – majority voting, which he feared could see French interests over-ruled. A “Luxembourg compromise” was eventually reached: the wonderful arrangement whereby majority votes would be on a majority basis except when they were not. The French electorate almost rejected the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Then in 2005 they did reject the Constitutional Treaty, only to see the very similar Lisbon Treaty imposed without a vote.
President Macron has bold ambitions for domestic reforms. Those should be saluted. However, he should proceed cautiously on matters European. Of course, Macron won his election, but he should remember that the first round of the presidential election saw less than 4.5 per cent between the four front-runners. We weren’t too far from a run off between two anti-euro candidates: Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Yesterday, in a speech at Paris’s elite Sorbonne university, Macron called for more Europe on defence (a “military intervention force” and a “common military budget”), more Europe on tax, more Europe on asylum and immigration, a new European counter-terrorism agency, a body to push for “radical innovation”, 20 cross-border European universities – and so on. He wants EU-wide political parties, or at least lists, for European parliamentary elections: the return of David Cameron’s hated Spitzenkandidaten.
The Elysse have tried to deny that Macron’s speech was revisited following Angela Merkel’s electoral set-back and the transformation – to quote a French daily – of Mutti into the mother of the AfD. But there are certainly reports of a Merkel call to Paris asking him to tone down his eurozone demands. Perhaps in a riposte to Germany’s previous rejection of his eurozone bonds idea, Macron commented that he had no “red lines”, only “horizons”. He also repeated his earlier demands for a common eurozone budget under a common finance minister.
I want France to play a key role in Europe, not least because of our many shared interests. I occasionally entertain a counter-factual narrative about what might have happened if France had had a different president, other than François Hollande, back during David Cameron’s attempted re-negotiation. I wonder whether an abler president would have insisted to Germany that more compromises were needed to keep Britain in. He or she should have seen Britain’s essential role in balancing Germany and France. Indeed, as Guglielmo Verdirame has argued, an explicit purpose of the European project for many on the continent was to limit German power. Now it is amplifying it. And after Brexit, that power dynamic will likely be exacerbated.
Combine Macron’s plans for a politically integrated eurozone with Juncker’s insistence that all countries (besides Denmark) are committed to joining the euro, and the federalist vision is clear. But it’s far from certain how things will progress. At least until Sunday’s election result, it was often said that Germany could be the saviour of Europe. Most often, this was used to mean that it was in Germany that true believers in the EU could be found. Now Germany could be the prime bulwark against the creation of what would – according to Macron’s and Juncker’s plan – be little less than a federal state. We can argue about semantics, but if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck….
A well-placed civil servant got in touch yesterday to ask what Britain would have done were the referendum to have gone the other way. Could we have vetoed all of this? Wasn’t a pillar of Cameron’s deal that Britain would have stood aside from integration in the eurozone? If the eurozone expanded further wouldn’t that have created a deeply – and potentially unsustainably – asymmetric relationship between the UK and Denmark outside the currency bloc and the rest within it, tied into a tighter political union? Perhaps. But someone else wondered out loud earlier whether Brexit isn’t instead the proximal cause of Macron’s candour, as well the trigger for the panicked rush to reboot the EU.