French President Emmanuel Macron was in the UK last week, with both countries seeking to strengthen bilateral ties as Brexit approaches. Macron, who won last year’s Presidential election against the Front National’s Marine Le Pen, has been held up as a hallmark for Europe to follow. Young, liberal and charismatic, Macron represents a style of politics attractive to many who feel that the UK has taken the wrong path since the 2016 referendum delivered a vote to leave the European Union.
Macron is an arch-Europhile, and his visit is significant to how Brussels will conduct the second phase of negotiations, beginning in earnest next month. Macron visited the Prime Minister’s constituency of Maidenhead, where the two leaders enjoyed a lunch at a local pub. Macron’s first visit to the UK was to focus heavily on border security and the migrant crisis, with France struggling to deal with an influx of migrants seeking to reach the UK. Calais, the site of the so called ‘Jungle’, where thousands of refugees live in makeshift tents, is an issue of much local importance in France, and Macron was seeking to deliver a victory, having visited the border just prior to his trip across the channel. He achieved this, with Theresa May announcing £44 million worth of additional cash from the UK into the policing and technology at the Calais border. Macron then arrived with the Prime Minister at Sandhurst, the specialist military academy, for the 35th UK-French summit. It was here that serious talks on Brexit, the omnipresent issue for all UK diplomatic engagements, came to the fore.
Following the conclusion of the first round of negotiations in a photo finish last year, the EU has been spending the Christmas period formalising their negotiating position with regards to their ‘future relationship’ with the UK. On the British side, the Prime Minister has made clear her desire to have a ‘deep and special partnership’, which would see the UK exit the single market and customs union, but sign a comprehensive free trade agreement, something similar to CETA, the deal signed between the EU and Canada, with an extra provision for services. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has rubbished such suggestions of a bespoke deal, arguing that the UK cannot cherry-pick elements of the single market that it likes, whilst opting out of what it does not. CETA does not solve the Irish border issue or provide for the free exchange of services upon which the City of London relies.
Macron, for his part, agreed that the UK could only have a bespoke deal if it agreed to the conditions, which are likely to be freedom of movement and accepting the oversight of the European Court of Justice, which would cross two clear red lines in the British negotiating position. However, if Macron is willing to engage more openly with the idea of a bespoke deal, which had not previously been entertained by the EU, then it is possible that their position on the matter is moving, as the reality of the UK’s departure sets in. Whilst Berlin grapples with a constitutional crisis, lacking a government since November’s elections, Paris will take the lead for now.
May faces trouble at home, with continued domestic unpopularity leading to rumours of an imminent leadership challenge from her party.