(Bloomberg Opinion) -- U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is barreling through Europe’s capitals with nothing concrete to say on Brexit beyond an unappealing offer of “new deal or no deal.” With Angela Merkel offering a response so cryptic that Germany was still explaining it a day later, France’s Emmanuel Macron was on hand to clarify: The European Union’s red lines, including upholding the single market and peace in Ireland, won’t shift.
The French president was also sending a more subtle message to his fellow EU leaders: I told you so.
It was Macron after all who predicted that the Brits would try to delay and renegotiate Brexit rather than jump over the cliff of a no-deal withdrawal back in March – something that duly happened. It was Macron who then guessed correctly that anything longer than a technical extension to that original March Brexit day would be seen by London as a chance for a do-over of the agreed deal. And it was Macron who angered his fellow member states after rejecting talk of pushing back Brexit until 2020 – a softer position supported by Merkel – in favor of an Oct. 31 deadline.
The hard-Brexit antics of Johnson since he took power from Theresa May and Nigel Farage’s Brussels-baiting after his recent success in the European Parliament elections have vindicated Macron’s realism. Merkel’s “good cop” will probably have less sway at the next EU summit.
Yet it’s hard to see this confirmation of Macron’s perspicacity as anything other than bittersweet. There was nothing from Johnson that promised viable alternatives to the thorny Irish backstop (the guarantee of no hard border between north and south) that would let him go home with a new deal. Failing some 11th-hour miracle, such as a successful U.K. parliamentary revolt blocking no deal and delivering an impasse-breaking general election or second referendum, Britain is on its way out. That leaves some big questions for Macron, Merkel and the rest of the EU about what they should do next.
Most attention is usually given to putting out immediate economic fires. How can Brussels ease the estimated hit of losing up to 1.5% of the EU’s annual output post-Brexit, especially as recession looms on the continent? And how can Macron avoid political blowback if French fishing fleets find themselves barred from British waters and blame the Elysee Palace? The answers might involve some sticking plasters to make sure no-deal contingency plans work, more public spending to support business, and even more European Central Bank stimulus.
But Brexit isn’t just about trade and money, it’s about geopolitics too. The U.K. is a nuclear power with a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, and Johnson took care to remind Macron that British helicopters were transporting French troops in Mali. Although Macron has been making enthusiastic noises about multilateral problem-solving ahead of this weekend’s G7 summit in Biarritz, a U.K. that’s shifting its focus back across the Atlantic toward Washington adds to the long list of reasons for the EU to feel isolated in a hostile world.
U.S. President Donald Trump is openly anti-EU. This week he lobbed Twitter bombs at the German economy, Europe’s reliance on the NATO umbrella and ECB policy. The G7 has been disrupted by Trump in the past, and having his pal Johnson there will up the ante. Meanwhile, China is exploiting European divisions to try to deepen its presence in EU member states such as Italy.
Ideally the EU would rise to the challenge of what Sciences Po Professor Zaki Laidi calls its “De Gaulle” moment – the realization that it must defend its interests alone. That requires more support for the federalist ambitions sketched out by Macron, especially from Merkel and her successor.
There are glimpses of hope. France and Germany are planning to build a fighter plane together, while the continent appears to be taking a common stand against Trump’s trade threat. Christine Lagarde’s imminent coronation at the ECB gives heart to those who believe the euro zone needs to develop a common fiscal policy, rather than always depending on ineffective quantitative easing. The former Polish deputy prime minister Jacek Rostowski thinks Germany’s economic struggles will give Macron the upper hand in trying to pursue deeper ties.
Nevertheless, crises have a habit of creating disunity. The combination of Brexit, the recession threat, trade spats and disputes with Italy could easily push things further apart. Macron will be perfectly aware of that.
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Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.
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