Nous regrettons le Brexit, but it’s your choice

France will not bend to Britain’s demands

One of the sillier things written about Brexit is that Europeans want to ‘punish’ the UK or that there is any belief that, being rid of Britain, Europe can now fulfil its destiny of ever closer union and move towards a single unified entity.

Nothing is further from the truth. Brexit accelerates the centrifugal forces already present in Europe, and gives a huge boost to the kind of neo-protectionism apparent in the parliament of Wallonia’s, one of Belgium’s five regional legislatures, decision to veto the planned EU-Canada trade deal.

In the last weeks I have spent time in Paris with several politicians, including President Francois Hollande, with the governor of the Banque de France, French government trade negotiators, and senior business leaders as part of research for a new book on the impact of Brexit on Europe. I have drawn the following conclusions.

France is saddened by the UK’s decision to interpret its referendum to leave the EU, which only 37% of the electorate voted for, as justification for a full-on ‘hard Brexit’, including a total rupture from the single market, the EU customs union, and common security policy.

There is no desire to punish Britons at all. Independently of each other, the various senior French representatives who I have spoken to all used the term ‘perdant-perdant’ – lose-lose.

The UK cannot have it both ways. If Britain insists that it can opt out of a founding EU principle of outlawing discrimination when hiring staff on grounds of nationality, then the UK also has to accept opting out of the other core right of Europe, namely allowing firms to buy and sell goods and services without any national barriers.

It has been proposed that all trades and clearing in euros will be brought back within the EU’s single market. This is settled French policy according to François Villeroy de Galhau, governor of the Banque de France. He added that no one in London should assume there will be any change in policy following the arrival of a new president after the May 2017 election. Villeroy de Galhau was brought up on the French-German border, speaks German fluently and knows the country well. He said there was a clear joint position between Berlin and Paris which will not change.

David Cameron and Nigel Farage were poster boys for Marine Le Pen’s National Front – the former for calling the referendum and the latter for winning it. As in the 1950s, when the French Communist party represented populist protectionism and won up to 30% of votes, the National Front has a real following, but granting the hard Brexit camp any concessions is seen in Paris as a major boost for Le Pen.

Talk of a ‘United States of Europe’ is now buried. Prime Minister Manuel Valls insists that the nation-state is Europe’s future basis of citizen organisation and representation, and that the EU complements or ‘supplements’ the sovereign country.

France no longer sees its external borders defined by the Channel, Pyrenees and the Rhine, but rather the Mediterranean and Black Sea. Valls himself comes from a Spanish immigrant family and France has always had nearly as many Portuguese as the UK has Poles, working in sectors which native French workers prefer not to. Any effort by the UK to force French citizens to apply for a visa or a work permit before coming to the UK will be seen as a hostile act.

The French have lived with just the same anti-EU passions as the British, and Brussels is no more popular in Paris than in London. In 2005, the French voted No to ratifying the treaty establishing a constitution of Europe in a populist plebiscite, but it did not go so far as to vote France out of the EU.

Consequently, the French accept the referendum vote in Britain but see it is a British choice with consequences the British have to accept. In the meantime, France will defend its interests firmly, wish Britain well, but will not agree to a re-writing of the rules to benefit the one departing member of the EU family of nations.

Denis MacShane is the former UK Minister for Europe and a Senior Adviser at Avisa Partners, Brussels. He is author of Brexit: How Britain Left Europe (IB Tauris) and a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

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