One wonders what Napoleon Bonaparte would make of the use being put to his favourite Riviera hideaway, Fort de Bregancon.
Here, after all, we have a most bizarre informal summit. A president of France who wants “more Europe” entertained a British prime minister who, whatever else might be said, sincerely desires rather less Europe. Mr Macron wishes to lead the European Union: Ms May has never concealed her distaste for the whole enterprise. Mr Macron covets the jobs in London’s financial sector, his counterpart frets about keeping them. Centuries of rivalry underpin such tensions. It is a small mercy England didn’t meet France in the World Cup final. The diplomatic damage might have been irreparable.
The Macron-May meeting, which took place Friday night, has often been portrayed as being a crude attempt by the British to go over the head, behind the back and round the side of the EU’s impressive chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, who has already seen off two British Brexit secretaries (David Davis through resignation and Dominic Raab because Ms May took personal charge of the talks).
Any such manoeuvre, it has been said, is futile. Like something from the late 19th century, British ministers have been bustling around Berlin, Stockholm, The Hague, Vienna and Prague, among other centres of power, to broker deals and reach new ententes. It’s as if the British had rediscovered their historic post-Napoleonic aim of dividing and ruling in Europe to retain the balance of power.
Well, that would be a foolish enterprise indeed, with only the mild amusement of winding up Mr Barnier. What might be more worthwhile is if this great, if belated, cross-continental diplomatic enterprise resulted in Europe’s governments gaining a better understanding of what the British want – unmediated by Mr Barnier’s precis – so he can be persuaded to look again at the negotiating framework and remit the EU27 have given to him.
Persistent, if denied, rumours suggest that this has had some impact with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Rather than having the UK just crashing out if a future trade agreement cannot be concluded, the UK could simply carry on the negotiations during a transition period, despite not knowing what the two parties would be transitioning to. As Michael Gove has reportedly suggested, it would mean Britain being “parked” in the European Economic Area as a sort of departure lounge, while the, erm, “experts” get on with the interstices of trade talks and the as-yet untested facilitated customs arrangement.
This option is attractive to No 10 because it avoids the chaos and sharp loss of trade in a no-deal Brexit, buys time and, crucially for the likes of Mr Gove, sees the UK formally out of the EU on the appointed date of 29 March 2019. Plus it keeps the Conservatives together. Make it over that line, the logic runs, and there is nothing the Remainers can do about it, nor Ms May’s rivals, such as Boris Johnson. Toxic problems such as the Irish border or Gibraltar would be parked in the same layby.
In such a scenario, the French would be appeased by British involvement in Mr Macron’s schemes for closer European defence and security cooperation. The divorce bill could be agreed formally and almost unconditionally.
Besides, the EU has other challenges to attend to, such as the still pressing migrant crisis and the awkward Italian government, running an economy, recklessly, that is too big to fail.
The danger for British interests is that an EEA or Norway option might tempt the EU too. For under such a state of affairs the UK would lose a good deal of its existing leverage in the talks, and would have little influence on the EU making, for what could turn out to be, an indefinite time. It would solve nothing, in fact, but merely buy more time to kick the familiar tin can down the never-ending road once again. The British parliament would remain unable to agree to any given option – and in due course lose the ability to vote to stay in the EU.
What is needed is a deal that makes sense, in some terms, and for that agreement to be set before the people, and for them to be given a final say on it in good time. By now we know the broad outlines, the costs and the benefits of the three main options – of hard Brexit, soft Brexit and the existing membership terms – and it is time we were allowed to exercise the sovereignty we hear so much about. Going over the head of Mr Barnier is one thing: going above the heads of the British people is quite another.