(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In March 2017, as the U.K. prepared to notify the European Union of its intention to leave, the French newspaper Liberation splashed a picture of a traditional British Queen’s Guard on its front page with the headline: “Brexit: We already miss you!” Just below was the qualifier: “Or not.”
That pretty much sums up France’s attitude toward Brexit Britain. It’s happy to get rid of a stubborn obstacle to closer European integration, but wary too about pushing away a big bilateral partner in trade, defense, security and financial services — and damaging its own and Europe’s economy in the process.
This ambivalence was evident again this week as President Emmanuel Macron dug in his heels over delaying the Brexit deadline for the third time this year. He might not truly be ready to chuck the U.K. overboard with a no-deal Brexit, but you can see why his patience is running out.
While technically this is a behind-the-scenes diplomatic spat at the EU rather than a public showdown between its leaders, the message was clear: Whereas most of the bloc wants to extend the Oct. 31 deadline by three months to give the Brits more time to break their parliamentary gridlock and avoid a no-deal scenario, France does not. It would prefer a one-month delay to maintain the pressure on British lawmakers to pass Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.
Clearly Macron still wants the U.K. to leave on an amicable basis, and for the EU to stay united along the way. This all seemed possible while Johnson’s deal and that of his predecessor Theresa May were being thrashed out in Brussels negotiating rooms, thanks to the efforts of the EU’s negotiator Michel Barnier. But once those deals are sent for approval by Britain’s dysfunctional Parliament, they enter a kind of eternal hell that threatens to consume the EU as well.
When the House of Commons rejected May’s deal, the EU blinked and granted a short delay, which solved nothing. So in April it tried a long delay, and ended up with the arch-Brexiter Johnson in Downing Street. Johnson spent months trying to divide EU member states in order to win concessions, before giving up and accepting a more realistic deal acceptable to Brussels. This one even managed to secure a majority in Parliament. Yet still it’s not enough.
In summary, Parliament wants time to properly scrutinize Johnson’s deal, which seems fair enough given its complexity and its not entirely convincing “solution” to the Irish border question. But Johnson fears, also reasonably, that many members of Parliament just want the chance to take his Withdrawal Agreement Bill and “amend it to death.”
Because of those fears Johnson wants an election, which he’s sure he would win and which would give him the parliamentary numbers to pass his deal. The only problem is that he needs the support of opposition Labour Party MPs to get an election, and they don’t want to give him one because they too think he would win. The result: more stasis. You can almost hear the groans from the Elysee Palace.
Macron is in the strange position now of being Johnson’s best hope to apply pressure on his Westminster foes. But the more pressing fear for the French president is that the more time the EU grants, the more likely it is that the Brits do nothing with it. Experience is certainly bearing him out. A short delay of one month might force the various factions in Parliament to get the deal through. And, if that doesn’t work, it would push Labour to accept an election or to force through another referendum for fear of a no-deal Brexit. Otherwise, limbo awaits.
It’s not clear how far Macron will take this standoff. It’s hard to play brinkmanship if everyone knows you don’t really want no deal. But the role of Brexit bad cop performs a function: to stop the U.K. from feeling comfortable in its half-in, half-out state. The danger for the Brits is that at some point the EU will have to choose whether its own smooth-running is worth sacrificing to avoid no deal. Macron’s bad cop might yet become an executioner.
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Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.
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