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19 January 2018

Emmanuel Macron confronts the UK with a hard truth: it is burning its bridges to Europe

The French president has made clear that there will be no special treatment for the UK if it leaves the single market. 

By George Eaton

Building bridges is not something the UK has excelled at in recent history. Theresa May’s refusal to guarantee European citizens’ rights, Boris Johnson’s World War II comparisons and Philip Hammond’s description of the EU as “the enemy” all squandered goodwill during the Brexit negotiations. 

But Johnson’s proposal of a literal bridge to France has helpfully distracted from the hard truths delivered by Emmanuel Macron last night. At his press conference with Theresa May, the French president warned that while he wanted a new trade deal to “cover everything”, the UK could not expect “full access to the single market and to financial services”. 

Macron emphasised: “The choice is on the British side, not on my side. They can have no differentiated access to financial services. If you want access to the single market, including the financial services, be my guest [Macron slipped into English for the last three words]. But it means that you need to contribute to the budget and acknowledge European jurisdiction. Such are the rules and we know this is the system already in place for Norway.”

Should the UK reject this model (as Theresa May consistently has done), it would have to settle for something “closer to the situation of Canada”. Macron continued: “We have some trade agreements which allow access to all services, be they financial or others, access as well to any industry sector, but not the same level of relationship as if you were a member of the single market. And there shall be no hypocrisy in this respect, otherwise it will not work. Or we would destroy the single market and its coherence.” 

Macron’s message is not a new one. Indeed, Michel Barnier, the chief Brexit negotiator has consistently framed the UK’s choice as one between Norway and Canada. The EU, as Macron emphasised, is not “punishing” Britain: it is merely upholding its rules. If you’re not a member of the club, you can’t expect access to the best facilities. 

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Yet the UK continues to delude itself about the choice it faces. Rather than accepting the economic price it will pay (far from gaining £350m a week, Britain is forecast to lose nearly £300m a week), the government maintains, in defiance of evidence, that the EU will make multiple exceptions for it.

In phase one of the Brexit talks, the UK’s delusions were continually exploded. It was forced to accept the postponement of trade negotiations, a divorce bill of £35-39bn, a likely transition period of two years and “full regulatory alignment” in the absence of solutions to the Irish question. Once the trade talks commence, Leavers will find it ever harder to ignore an ineluctable truth: they are putting “sovereignty” before prosperity. 

As for Johnson’s bridge, Downing Street has downplayed the idea and Macron’s spokesman has denied that the president told the Foreign Secretary: “Let’s do it”. The reality, as Macron stated, is clear: Britain is burning its economic bridges to Europe with little to show for it.