Why France and the EU are losing patience with Brexit Britain

As exhaustion and frustration spread in Brussels, countries are warming to the idea of denying the UK an extension. 

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As he discusses Brexit live on radio, French foreign affairs minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is staring at the floor. His soul seems to have departed his body, leaving behind an empty shell repeating: “The British must tell us what they want.” 

“For three years, the UK has tried to find a way to apply the people’s choice [to leave the EU] and has found no way forward,” he continues in a desperate rictus. “Three years.” 

These quotes are from the same interview that this weekend made headlines in the UK, as Brexit-backing newspapers denounced Le Drian’s warning that “as things stand”, the EU will not grant the UK a further extension. 

Will the treacherous French deliver the fatal blow to their mortal British enemy by forcing the UK into a no-deal Brexit on 31 October, the British media asked? Will France then steal away Britain’s precious trade deals? Why must “swaggering Macron” and French officials always lecture the UK on its choices? Should we go to war with France? (This one’s a joke, but who knows, armed conflict against a historical enemy might just be a means of reunifying a divided UK.) 

France’s hardline stance on Brexit is far from new. Over the last few months, Emmanuel Macron has declared several times that France and the EU shouldn’t be scared of, and should be ready for, a no-deal scenario. Back in August, Macron warned that a no-deal Brexit “would be Britain’s doing, always”. 

The French European affairs minister Amélie de Montchalin also echoed Le Drian’s view last week: “When I hear the British saying, ‘Give us three months more and we will solve the problem’, we can see that another six months would not solve the problem, nor another three months. They have to be able to tell us what they want.” Meanwhile, France continues to advance its no-deal preparation, announcing on Monday that it would soon open an online platform for British citizens to register for post-Brexit residency. 

By threatening to veto a Brexit extension, the French government is largely engaged in tactical manoeuvring. France does have a theoretical veto card — a Brexit delay must be decided unanimously — but it’s unlikely to use it if other European partners disagree. Yet as exhaustion and frustration spread in Brussels, others are warming to the idea too. “Foreign minister Le Drian is right,” the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt tweeted. “Yet another extension for Brexit is unacceptable, unless the deadlock in London is broken. Let it be a 2nd ref., new elections, a revocation of art. 50 or the approval of the deal, but not today’s helpless status quo.” The key words in Le Drian’s threat are “as things stand”: the UK could very quickly turn the situation around, should it stop sabotaging itself in increasingly creative ways.

But does it even matter whether France vetoes an extension when Boris Johnson has declared that he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask for one? Although they would never admit it openly, it should be noted that many tired officials in Brussels would “rather be dead in a ditch” than grant an extension to the UK’s most infuriating PM since its last one. Don’t believe the British government’s spin in Brussels; talks are stalling, with reports of catastrophic meetings in which UK envoys have made virtually no new proposition. 

It bears repeating that in the absence of a new British proposition and a further extension, no deal is the default: it will happen if nothing else does. And at the moment, as Le Drian, De Montchalin, Verhofstadt, Macron, and the rest of the EU leaders and officials lament, nothing is happening.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.