Macron and Merkel were too busy looking the other way (Photo credit should read JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images)

June 25, 2021   7 mins

In the last days of David Cameron’s attempts to renegotiate the UK’s opt-out-laden membership of the European Union, the British representatives in Brussels expended an enormous effort in one area: it was to persuade their counterparts that the UK could formally disavow the commitment written into EU treaties that the Union exists to realise “ever closer Union among the peoples of Europe”.

For Cameron, it was an important symbolic victory, showing that Britain had a “special status inside the EU”. For his fellow EU premiers, it was a bewildering demand, especially when the man making it had assured them that he was desperate for the UK to remain inside the EU. It proved to be more revealing than either side realised, for its logic pointed to Brexit. Yet five months later, when the British electorate did collectively decide that the UK should exit the EU, the idea that the UK could do such thing was treated as an outcome that those involved in the negotiations could scarcely have envisaged.

When Cameron began his round of travels to European capitals in the middle of 2015 to try to win friends prior to the renegotiations, he wasn’t taken particularly seriously. Perhaps, paying too much attention to British political punditry, his fellow EU leaders had not expected the Conservatives to win a parliamentary majority at the general election that May. Perhaps they had not noticed that Cameron had included in the Conservative manifesto an assurance that any government he headed would not enter another coalition without first securing a commitment to a referendum on EU membership. Or perhaps, since they wouldn’t have contemplated doing such a thing themselves, they did not take Cameron to mean what he said — that if the British people voted for Brexit, Brexit is what would then happen.

Most EU governments, not least the German one, were also preoccupied with other matters and would remain so throughout Cameron’s ill-fated renegotiations. By the early summer, the risk for Angela Merkel was not whether British voters would choose to leave the EU but whether her Finance Minister Wolfgang SchĂ€uble’s attempt to expel Greece from the Euro would succeed. Only weeks after it failed — in part because Merkel made some small concessions to the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras — the German Chancellor threw Europe into tumult by upending the EU’s common asylum rules to cope with the numbers of refugees and migrants travelling from Turkey into southern Europe. By the time, in February 2016, Cameron sought to finalise his agreement, Merkel’s focus had shifted to procuring a definitive agreement with Recep Tayyip Erdogan to return migrants without strong asylum claims back to Turkey in exchange for reactivating accession talks for Ankara.

The fallout of these events seems to have blindsided Cameron. There could have scarcely been a less propitious time for any British government to have been demanding concessions from other EU states than a moment when opt-outs from the Euro, the EU’s asylum policy and Schengen – the borderless travel area that covers most of the EU – protected the UK from the crises with which most other member states were grappling.

But Cameron did not help himself. If he had acted like someone who really believed that the Eurozone crisis had so destabilised the UK’s membership of the EU that exit had to be a serious option, he might have secured his fellow leaders’ attention. Instead, he plunged into negotiations in Brussels according to a timetable in part constructed to help George Osborne become the next Conservative leader with a Remain campaign organisation already assembled and ready to go in London.

With no currency in the EU’s present-tense difficulties with which to bargain and unable to instil fear about the future, he all too predictably ended up with very little beyond the promise that the UK did not have to pretend it believed in the EU’s stated purpose. When he returned home, he had to ask British voters to Remain, having just put on an overt demonstration of how little influence the UK could exercise in a Union whose founding text he had disowned.

But the possibility that Cameron’s lack of guile and their inattention to British problems would lead to the UK leaving the EU eluded many in the EU too. (Whether it did Merkel must remain an open question.) In part, this complacency rendered the referendum result a psychic blow. If some teleological historical force is supposed to be the ultimate agent of ever-closer Union in Europe, then, the EU is not supposed to shrink, however “cold” — a word Merkel once used to describe Cameron’s view of the Union ­— the vision of passing leaders of individual member states.

Brexit would also prove a colossal practical distraction: as Emmanuel Macron later complained, it created “thousands of hours of work for European leaders”. Believing that there was a reasonable likelihood that those Remainers at Westminster who wanted to prevent Brexit would eventually prevail was easier than working out how the EU could reconstruct a different kind of relationship with the UK as a simultaneous competitor and partner.

That Brexit would bequeath Ireland a serious problem, allied to the obvious difficulties Northern Ireland would pose to any government actually procuring parliamentary assent for a withdrawal treaty, only reinforced this impulse. Now that Brexit has occurred, Northern Ireland has become instead the most fraught component of the EU’s relations with the UK. This is in part because Northern Ireland remains the UK’s primary Brexit weakness. As a matter of legal principle, the Northern Ireland Protocol weakens the UK Union, and its practical operation destabilises Northern Irish politics. So long as Joe Biden is President, it is a serious complication to the UK’s Atlantic relations, too.

But the Northern Ireland Protocol is also the EU’s burden. Brussels must now reconcile its expressed commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and its need to defend the borders of the Single Market,  in a situation where over the next decade or so there could be a border poll resulting in Northern Ireland becoming an inherent part of the EU’s legal order. Whether this is a prospect that EU governments can contemplate with any sanguineness remains to be seen.

Only the French government, after Macron came to power in May 2017, consequentially dissented from the effort to keep open the possibility of the UK staying in the EU, without which a different outcome in Northern Ireland might have materialised. Twice in 2019, Macron threatened to veto the extensions to the Article 50 deadline that first Theresa May and then Boris Johnson had to request. As Macron showed that October when he vetoed the start of accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania, the French President doesn’t believe that the EU is strengthened by sheer size. He thinks the Union needs to look like it is exercising power. For him, Brexit didn’t have to be stopped; rather, it had to be self-evident that it has deleterious consequences for Britain.

From the start, Macron also conceived the UK’s impending departure from the EU as an opportunity to reform the Eurozone by making it a debt-bearing Union, and delineating a more hierarchical EU with a Franco-German core and a ring of outer members retaining national monetary sovereignty. His opening bid, articulated in his big “Initiative for Europe” speech at the Sorbonne in September 2017, met much more British-style resistance than he envisaged.

His subsequent success during the first months of the pandemic in persuading Merkel to accept some shared debt may well prove only a temporary victory; since NextGenerationEU is for the EU and not just the Eurozone, it has also only deepened the tangle between the EU’s legal order and the Eurozone. But the chances that last year’s agreement to issue EU sovereign debt would have been realised had the UK still been inside the EU are slim, as indeed they would have been if the 2019 British General Election had led to a second referendum.

Macron is the heir of a long line of Pan-Europeanists who have believed, for geopolitical reasons, that the UK can have no part in a European economic and political union. But, like Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi who founded the Paneuropean movement in the 1920s, Macron strongly believes that the UK needs to be absorbed into a well-defined European security system. For Macron, there has never been a reason why Brexit should disrupt the bilateral Franco-British military relationship entrenched in the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties. Nor does he think that the EU’s own security architecture should constrain how the UK participates in collective European security matters, hence his push in 2018 to establish a structure for military action around the EU’s border in the European Intervention Initiative — which includes the UK.

As, in late 2019, it became clear that Johnson was likely to prevail over the parliamentary Remainers, Merkel joined Macron in calling for a post-Brexit European Security Council. But, emboldened by the Conservatives’ substantial parliamentary majority, Johnson has proved less pliable to Macron’s strategic ambitions than May. Contrary to the French President’s hopes, Johnson’s post-election government decided that foreign and security policy should not be any part of the negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship.

In the absence of any confederal European architecture to ground broad foreign policy co-ordination, there has been little to constrain the divergent paths the UK and the EU have taken towards China since the middle of last year. To some degree, the weight of the UK’s historical relationship with Hong Kong and the nature of Germany’s deep economic relationship with China has made this separation near inevitable. But the British and French governments have pretty similar objectives in the Indo-Pacific. It is the absence of something akin to a European Security Council that ensures there will be less internal European pressure on Berlin to lead an EU policy that extends beyond economic and climate matters, and begins to engage with the probable future pressure points on access in the South China Sea.

Whether it is China or Northern Ireland, Britain’s relationship with the EU is beset with uncertainty. On Northern Ireland, Macron insists that the UK must stick to what it negotiated. But the Johnson government won’t take responsibility for protecting the Single Market any more than the EU will treat the Democratic Unionists as their problem. The present impasse has arisen from a series of misjudgements in the UK and continental capitals about the likely outcomes arising from the political constraints at work, played out against a backdrop of a world being transformed by Sino-American strategic rivalry. This is a fracture in European geopolitics for which neither the UK government nor the EU prepared. Now it is all too evident, the question is whether there is the political space for a grand bargain to repair it.

Helen Thompson is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Cambridge and co-presenter of UnHerd’s These Times.