The Withdrawal Agreement negotiation between the United Kingdom and the European Union arguably boiled down to one between the UK and a single member state: Ireland.
For the most knotty of the three main issues at stake was neither money nor citizens’ rights, but where the UK/EU border was drawn in relation to the island of Ireland.
Once the UK and the Irish Republic had clinched a deal over it, as presaged by Boris Johnson and Leo Veradkar at their meeting in the Wirral, the Withdrawal Agreement was swiftly settled and signed.
This Brexit trade negotiation is not exactly between the UK and a single member state, but one of the latter may be about to decide it. This time round, that country isn’t Ireland. It is France.
Angela Merkel’s spokesman said recently that “for the Chancellor, and that hasn’t changed for weeks, the willingness to compromise is needed on both sides. [our italics].”
“If you want to have a deal, both sides need to move towards each other. Everybody has their principles, there are red lines, that’s clear but there’s always room for compromise.”
These remarks were clearly aimed not only at the UK, but also at a loose coalition of EU member states of which the most prominent member is France.
When we last wrote about the negotiation, the two sides of the table were reported to be “miles apart” on fishing, closer on state aid – and at loggerheads over regulatory and other alignment.
The Government’s version of where the talks stand is that a deal looked more likely at the beginning of the week than the end, because Emmanuel Macron made late demands on non-regression clauses and fishing.
Some reports suggests that his view is that – to borrow a phrase from the Brexiteer lexicon – “No Deal is better than bad deal”. And that a loose coalition of countries including Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Italy and Spain agree.
Against them is set another which wants a deal rather than No Deal – led by Germany, and including Ireland, Austria and some central and eastern European states.
However, there are questions about whether, in the last resort, Macron is really prepared to push for No Deal; and whether, if he is, Angela Merkel is really willing to stop him.
When Brexiteers look at the EU, their gaze tends to fix on Germany – partly because it is the biggest economic power within the Union; partly because of twentieth century history, with its two world wars.
But the present state of play in the negotiation is a reminder not to overlook the country which has form in casting a veto when the UK and Europe are concerned – De Gaulle’s Non of 1962.
Indeed, there is more UK-German understanding on the centre-right. Both countries have a broad post-war history of being pro-market, pro-free trade and pro-American.
And there are institutions through which such Anglo-German conversation is mediated – such as the Konrad Adenauer Stifftung, which has a presence in London (and had a larger one until fairly recently).
There is no real equivalent on the centre-right (though, interestingly, the three main officers of the Anglo-French Parliamentary Group are all Conservatives: Stephen Crabb, Edward Leigh and Bob Neill).
This absence is not, on reflection, all that surprising, because France’s centre-right has been, over time, dirigiste in outlook rather than market-orientated, often protectionist, and hostile to American leadership.
Furthermore, it is republican where the UK’s is monarchist, and less bound up with party: necessarily, since De Gaulle’s RPR went and Jacques Chirac’s UMP came – later to be rebranded “the Republicans” by Nicholas Sarkozy.
Above all, Britain and France have tended to approach dealing with Germany from different ends, hence their opposing reflexes when it comes to the EU, shaped by wartime and historical experience.
France’s gambit has been to seek to tie Germany down through European institutions, beginning with the Coal and Steel community and ending with the EU itself.
Britain has ultimately opted to cut itself loose from Germany, and from the entire EU order that France played such a significant part in creating, partly in order to restrain its neighbour.
Indeed, another centre-right French leader, Giscard d’Estaing (who died last week) drew up the constitution for Europe rejected by the French people themselves in the 2005 referendum.
Tony Blair pledged a referendum on that constitution. And the Conservatives argued for one on the Lisbon Treaty, which reproduced substantial parts of it. Which helped to set the UK on the road to the 2016 referendum.
De Gaulle himself wasn’t a European federalist: far from it. He wanted a “Europe of nations” – but didn’t see Britain as potential partner in helping to create one.
This was because he believed, correctly, that the UK would not detach itself from the United States. And that leadership in Europe must come from within Europe itself – and from one country in particular: his own
Marcon is no Gaullist. Our columnist Garvan Walshe wrote after his 2017 election victory that “the most ideologically pro-European man since d’Estaing now occupies the Elysée”.
Nonetheless, he has, in common with de Gaulle a national trait which the latter exemplified: the conviction that France is central to the world’s civilisation and culture. Perhaps this is the real certaine idee de la France.
Over at UnHerd, Aris Roussinos describes how Macron is setting himself up as the uncompromising champion of enlightenment values or, the author puts it…
“…a defender of the French and European Enlightenment against Chinese totalitarianism, the seductive lures of Europe’s radical right, and the counter-Enlightenment obscurantism of both jihadists and Americans”.
This is David Cameron’s “muscular liberalism” made flesh – muscular being an appropriate word here, as French riot police wade in against anti-government protesters in the same uninhibited way as they did against the gilets jaunes.
Which is a reminder that French politics has a lower boiling-point than our own. But for all the differences of outlook, the two countries remain close as the only two substantial military powers in western Europe.
Only last week, Ben Wallace set out the terms of engagement for the 300 UK ground troops now serving as part of the United Nations mission in Mali.
The country is a former French colony; France provides the biggest element of the U.N mission, and has been actively engaged there in military action against Islamist extremists during recent years.
“The mission to the Sahel region of Africa has been described as the world’s most dangerous peacekeeping deployment, the BBC reports.
It is an intriguing setting for what looks like the first substantial deployment of combat troops in a new country since the Iraq War (with the exception of special forces).
No Deal on trade would scarcely be helpful to this and other co-operation on security. Government sources are ramping up the possibility of the talks breaking up without agreement.
If the reporting of some close to the action is right, Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen talked yesterday with the negotiation at a real impasse. And, like Johnson, Macron has his own domestic audience to please.
Perhaps the French view is that the UK would crumble after a few weeks of No Deal. But is climbdown really more likely than escalation, given Johnson’s mandate, his party’s Brexit take, and his majority?
In which context, it may be worth noting that today’s Observer finds an expectation among some on the EU side that a deal will reached before Wednesday and signed off at a virtual summit on Thursday.