Britain and Europe

Brexit: The Franco-German Agenda

8 June 2018

Dispelling myths about the Franco-German position on Brexit

Andrew Glencross
Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com

The lively and extremely well-attended event hosted by Policy Network last week provided a unique opportunity to hear the perspectives of senior politicians from France and Germany on the ongoing Brexit negotiations, alongside those of academics, such as myself, from the UK. The brief was to transcend the limitations of the UK-centric debate that dominates media coverage in this country. What drew together the various strands of the insights offered during the course of the evening was the need to dispel certain myths about the Franco-German position on Brexit.

Markus Töns, the Bundestag member for Gelsenkirchen (SPD), wasted no time in expressing regret at the referendum result while also acknowledging the need to balance the UK’s links to Europe at the same time as protecting the interests and values of the EU. Tellingly, he rejected the notion that the outcome of the Article 50 talks could result in a ‘win-win’ situation for both parties. Instead, the key message was that the UK must set out a clearer strategy regarding what level of participation it wants in the single market and customs union based on accepting the current rules that regulate both.

Insights on the French attitude to negotiating Brexit came courtesy of Alexandre Holroyd, member of the French national assembly for French residents overseas, whose constituency includes the UK. He strongly opposed the lazy characterisation that somehow France is the ‘bad cop’ in the fraught Brexit negotiations. A clear example of this misapprehension is the negative media portrayal of Michel Barnier, who is conducting the talks on behalf of the EU. But as Alexandre Holroyd pointed out, Barnier is an Anglophile whose first political engagement in fact came on behalf of the UK as he supported the British application to join the EEC, which was the subject of a referendum in France in 1973!

The discussion oscillated between the immediate travails of concluding a withdrawal agreement prior to March 2018 and the longer term endpoint of UK-EU relations. On the former, Markus Töns provided a note of cautious optimism when explaining that 75% of the content of the withdrawal agreement providing for a smooth departure has been agreed. Where things look less positive, however, is the residual threat of a protracted decade-long wrangling over the terms of trade covering what the UK government calls ‘a special economic partnership’. That is a situation both France and Germany are determined to avoid. I also noted that there is good reason for the UK to avoid dragging out such talks because the longer they go on, the more risk there is of mistrust affecting the broader EU-UK relationship.

French journalist Eric Albert chaired the session and used an audience question as an occasion to query Baroness Julie Smith’s understanding of the position of the House of Lords on the domestic Brexit front.  Her strong defence of the upper chamber’s use of its amending powers was articulated in terms of fulfilling the Lords’ constitutional duty to make sure government-proposed legislation to prepare for Brexit was fit for purpose. Ultimately, this point echoed the shared view of all participants regarding the need to prevent the hard-nosed horse-trading over commercial interests undermine constitutional values on both sides. The Franco-German position in this fundamental sense is one of protecting the EU as a ‘community of destiny’, meaning the UK government also has to appreciate the extent to which the future relationship with the EU needs to be built on common values.