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Analysis
How to boost European integration

How to boost European integration

France could seize the chance of British No

by Jacques Lafitte in Brussels

Tue 1 Mar 2016

Former French President Charles de Gaulle’s personal credo was that, great as Britain was, the nation was never ready to be European. Hence his rejection of the first British efforts under the two Harolds – Macmillan and Wilson, prime ministers in the 1960s – to join the Common Market.

More than half a century later, former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard, an Anglophile whose father served de Gaulle in London, says it is time for Britain to go. He heads a long list of French politicians and commentators who are waiting, some even hoping, for Britain to leave the European Union.

I hope Brexit doesn’t happen. But if the UK does depart, I would like this to be such a shock on the continent that the euro area would finally move towards greater integration – by introducing a true economic union to add to the incomplete monetary union.

At present, as just one example of the euro’s unfinished nature, mutual reinsurance of national bank deposit guarantee schemes looks almost beyond reach. But that could change. From a big EU crisis could flow big opportunities.

It’s fair to say that Britain has always been a uniquely difficult member state. We French people often think of the UK’s opt-outs from the euro and the Schengen agreement, the surreal ‘opt-out-but-count-me-in’ on justice and home affairs, and the rejection of common European defence.

I can live with all that. The cherished Denmark of my wife has even more opt-outs than Britain, and I can’t even buy a sommerhus there. I see two much bigger problems with the UK.

First, Britain has long championed enlargement to countries that have very little to do with western Europe. It’s not that long ago that London was up in arms because France (and Austria) decided to submit the accession of Turkey to a referendum. The second British scandal is that, for 20 long years between Jacques Delors and Jean-Claude Juncker, the UK has in effect hand-picked less than stellar presidents for the European Commission, only to complain the day after they were installed that they were propelling Europe down the wrong path.

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s refusal to discuss seriously the refugee issues, and his claim that the Brussels accord on London’s new arrangements awards Britain a ‘special status’ (which objectively it does not), are seen in France as a triumph of national egoism. All the same, some French people would like a similar deal. Cameron was the February rock star for National Front politicians. You can bet Boris Johnson will be the March one.

For now, in his unmistakable sphinx style, French President François Hollande is saying precious little. But if Brexit happens, the gloves will be off. At the start of a tense campaign ahead of the presidential elections in April-May 2017, France will remember it has national interests too.

The French elites know for sure that Brexit would be the last opportunity to resuscitate Paris as a major financial centre. And this time the French may seize it. With former Rothschild banker Emmanuel Macron, now a reasonably successful economy minister in Hollande’s government, insisting he wants more billionaires in France, City financiers may find Paris a convenient place to relocate.

The conventional wisdom is that if Britain does leave, the consequences will take time to materialise. But, if Brexit happens, whoever is British prime minister on 24 June would have to obey the will of the people and start imposing frontier controls on EU citizens. Likewise, whatever the legal transition period, political reality would ensure that the House of Commons would start rejecting rulings of the European Court of Justice, and reimpose British judicial power.

In such an atmosphere of confrontation, the EU would have to retaliate to survive, to prevent others following the British example. Paris would be on the hardliners’ side, not least because Marine Le Pen, the NF leader, is already rehearsing plans for ‘Frexit’. An early measure would be to relocate the border with France on UK soil.

The UK might bid farewell to Brussels, but it would not escape difficult choices. And if it unwittingly drove the remaining EU states to bury their differences and seek greater prosperity through more integration, the Brits might one day have cause to regret a flawed choice.

Jacques Lafitte is Chief Executive of Avisa Partners, Brussels, and a former aide to Yves-Thibault de Silguy, the European Commissioner responsible for introducing the euro in 1999. This is No. 1 in the OMFIF series.

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