Don’t expect Brexit to bring about a new dawn in the rest of Europe

We should be wary of leaping from one simple narrative to the next. 

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The body language and lip-reading experts were put on high alert during last week’s European Council meeting where Britain, once again, was made to feel the chilly wind of isolation. Since Brexit, the press pack seems to have been engaged in a competition to capture the image that best illustrates the sinking ship of state.

Sharp-elbowed photographers peek through blinds in the hope of finding the Prime Minister looking doleful and friendless while other European leaders huddle conspiratorially over champagne and vol-au-vents. We have seen David Davis portrayed as a bemused lamb before the slaughter, sans briefing documents, while steely eyed EU negotiators line up against him like pin-striped New Jersey attorneys.

One of the latest freeze-frames from Brussels was of Theresa May wedged between Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, who were covering their mouths like Premier League footballers as they whispered into her ear. Some said that May was just relieved not to be ignored; others joked that she was forced to listen dutifully as the final sum of the Brexit divorce bill was dictated to her by the weathermakers in a reinvigorated Franco-German alliance.

Such is the British habit for self-flagellation that impotence is now the driving narrative of almost every major news item here concerning Europe, from the French and German elections to each round of negotiations between the UK and EU. There is a great deal of truth in the picture of cack-handedness and confusion. It has also been made clear that, in the short term, any efforts to divide the Franco-German bloc to secure a soft landing for Britain will yield very little apart from irritation. The Brits will have to trudge through the mud in Brussels rather than pick up the phone to Berlin. The united front of the EU27 holds for now.

Nonetheless, we should be wary of leaping from one simple narrative to the next. Just as Britain realises its fatal error in voting for Brexit, we are now led to believe, so Europe has recovered its sense of purpose. Liberated by the departure of ambivalent Albion, a reborn EU is now unified on the need to usher in a new era of European cooperation, and fully agreed on the imperative of making Brexit hurt.

The reality is more complex.

Central to this account of European renewal is the idea that 39-year-old French president Macron has provided a new vision and impetus for the EU project, and that he has a willing partner in the 63-year-old German chancellor Merkel. Here, it is said optimistically, is a judicious mix of youthful enthusiasm and wily experience.

In a recent interview given to Der Spiegel, the French President stressed his admiration for Angela Merkel, and his hopes for what a close working relationship might achieve. Macron, channelling Hegel, said that the essence of politics is to understand the Zeitgeist. For too long, he suggested, the centrists of Europe have lacked a sense of “political heroism”. Post-modernist thinking, according to the student-of-literature-turned-banker, has corroded the “grand narratives” that are required for political success.

Macron also argued that Europe has been drifting aimlessly on a tide of “collective defeatism” since 2005, at least, when the French and the Dutch said “no” in referendums on the EU constitution. By this diagnosis, “the more reticent one is with European ambitions, the less progress one makes”. Thus far, as outlined in a September speech at the Sorbonne, Macron’s strategy has been to use the leverage France has – it will soon be the only EU state with a UN Security Council seat and an independent nuclear deterrent – to set the EU on an economic course that will support his efforts to revive the French economy. François Mitterrand is the model, but Macron’s centrism is ecumenical enough for him to lift some mantras from Charles De Gaulle.

Behind the confidence of his movement-party – En Marche! – however, is growing scepticism that the new president can deliver on what some are calling “France’s last chance”. He is trying to modernise an economy that has yet to recover fully from the 2008 crash and is failing on two key metrics: growth and employment. The measures taken so far, such as the abolition of the wealth tax, have been deeply divisive. In a scathing assessment of Macronism for the New Left Review, Perry Anderson suggests that the new president is devoid of any serious strategy beyond “excruciating pronouncements of patriotard bombast”.

“What I value is that she has never tried to tap the brakes on my élan, my enthusiasm,” says Macron of the German chancellor, true to form. He claims they are also united by a shared love of details. And yet it is those details – in the new proposals for Europe coming from the Élysée Palace – that best illustrate the distance between them. Chief among them is loosening the shackles of the European Central Bank by revamping the eurozone, with a common budget for investment and the appointment of its own finance minister to distribute it. Merkel has remained much more sceptical about grand plans to remake Europe and, after a bruising general election, she has no mandate to pursue anything so radical. Fiscal responsibility remains the leitmotif. This is more the case now that she is in a coalition with the Free Democrats, who have already expressed wariness about further EU spending.

Macron once said of Brexit that it “held up a mirror to the EU”, reminding us that it was both “dysfunctional and highly uninspiring”. This will not be remedied by proclamation alone. The EU27 may be agreed on Brexit for now, but we should not overstate the prospect of a new dawn in the lands that Britain is leaving behind. 

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia