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Brexit: France losing patience

Catherine Martens
September 10, 2019

France is losing patience with the United Kingdom in matters Brexit, and has threatened to veto any further delay. For Paris, the responsibility to avoid a no-deal outcome is up to the UK.

Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson in Paris
Image: Reuters/G. Fuentes

France, unlike Germany, has in recent days left no doubt as to its position on another Brexit delay. When DW asked officials within the Elysee Palace for comment, they made it clear that "the president is not in favor of an extension."

France's position could become a serious problem. If the UK does end up asking for another extension to the current October 31 deadline, all 27 EU member states would have to give the move the green light. With France dragging its feet, it could end up playing a decisive role in the ongoing Brexit drama.

'Non' — for now

Already back in March, with the UK facing the first Brexit deadline, President Emmanuel Macron stood his ground. It was only with great difficulty that European heads of state and government managed to negotiate a compromise — first to mid-April, then to the current date of October 31. But after two extensions, Paris is now unwilling to allow for any further flexibility.

"In the current circumstances, it's no," said Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian over the weekend, speaking with France's Europe 1 radio broadcaster. "We are not going to go through this every three months." And that is still the government's stance today, the Foreign Ministry has confirmed to DW.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has said the country is prepared for the UK to leave the European Union at the end of October. Those who are interested can read up on the latest Brexit ministerial meetings on Instagram. France, whose northern coast will mark the new border of the EU internal market after Brexit, is ready to begin imposing customs controls, among other things. The question remains, however — will France stick to its tough stance to the very end and risk a no-deal scenario.

Read more: EU completes no-deal Brexit preparations

From London to Paris

A timely UK exit would be of economic interest to France. Paris has long been keen to eclipse London as Europe's financial center, and giving Britain another delay would only make it more difficult for Paris' La Defense financial district to take the top spot.

Since the UK Brexit referendum in 2016, France has been much more open than Germany in selling Paris as a new European hub. Paris Europlace, a private non-profit organization charged with promoting the French capital as an investment location, has put the number of potential new jobs in finance and industry at about 8,000, ultimately bringing around 20,000 people to the city. According to a Europlace study from 2018, 31 of the world's 500 leading companies are French, while only 29 are German and 24 are British. These figures for the greater Paris area aren't, of course, representative of the entire country.

Brexit benefits

In France, thinking about how the country can benefit from Brexit isn't taboo, said Christian Lequesne of the Center for International Studies at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, or Sciences Po.

"For the French, there isn't the feeling that Britain must stay in the EU at all costs," said Lequesne. He believes that Paris is very different from Berlin in this respect, and thinks the French see the German response to Brexit as feeble.

Lequesne also thinks the times when German Chancellor Angela Merkel was able to easily push through her political views at the European level are over. "Emmanuel Macron is impatient — he wants to get Europe out of crisis," he said. "He finally wants to get started on reforms."

Read more: German politicians welcome Macron's EU reforms initiative

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron at the EU leaders' summit in Brussels
Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, seen here at the EU leaders' summit in Brussels in June 2019, have for years been discussing possible reforms for the blocImage: Reuters/S. Lecocq

But despite France's impatience, it remains highly unlikely the UK will be pushed out of the European Union simply to make way for reforms, said Mujtaba Rahman, a political analyst who once worked for the European Commission and now teaches at both Sciences Po and the London School of Economics. He believes France's tough stance to be part of the political game — a negotiating position that will give the EU more wiggle room in negotiations.

Read more: No-deal Brexit scenario equals food, fuel and drug shortages

It's unlikely that Macron will become the hard-liner among the 27 member states, according to Rahman. That would isolate him politically and weaken his claim to replace Merkel as Europe's strongest political force in the long term. "The French position is more subtle," he said.

That view is echoed by French diplomatic sources in Brussels. "We can't go along with an extension just for the sake of it," they've told DW — unless, perhaps, the extension were to be accompanied by a new political direction in the UK. According to Rahman, France is bound to take a tough stance in negotiations, but more about the length of any delay, and not whether there will be one in the first place.

"Anything else would play against the French president. After all, he wants to make a name for himself with a European agenda, and not by prematurely kicking the British out," said Rahman.

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