European Union

Macron in a bind on Brexit and the battle for power in Brussels

BY Finn McRedmond   /  30 May 2019

Jupiter is in a spin as the European elections have landed Macron with a quandary.

A few months ago, the majority of EU leaders wanted to give the UK a long extension to Article 50, but Macron argued that offering this kind of delay risked damaging the whole EU project. A French official said: “We do not want to import Britain’s political crisis into the EU.”

Such is Macron’s aversion to a long extension that Paris has argued openly that a no deal Brexit is actually preferable. Macron doesn’t want Brexit to infect the upcoming tussle for top EU jobs, or the agreement of the crucial Multi-annual Financial Settlement. He is anticipating disruption from an influx of eurosceptic Brexit Party MEPs; coupled with the non-eurosceptic MEPs from Britain trying to ensure that the UK stays in the EU, begging for help and seeking to have influence in key European Parliament groupings

The British are a complication as Macron attempts to stamp his personality on the EU.

These are the first European Elections Macron has presided over as French President. His party – En Marche – fielded candidates under French coalition Renaissance and won 23 seats. And – they’re set to join the third largest grouping in the European Parliament ALDE (Alliance of Liberals  and Democrats for Europe).

Due to the weakened centre-right EPP (who lost around 40 seats) and the weakened Social Democrats (who also lost around 40 seats), ALDE – who made ground in this election – are set to be kingmakers in this new European Parliament. Not only will they have Macron’s new MEPs, but also the 19 seats won by the Liberal Democrats over here.

Macron’s goal, it seems, is to create a centrist coalition to leverage Europe and pursue his agenda for the bloc. That includes the President’s plan to pursue a two-tier European Union – ie. closer federalisation and risk sharing for those nations who want it, and a looser association with the bloc to those who don’t.

Additionally, as the top jobs in Europe are being divvied out now, Macron can hope to use the clout of a centrist coalition held together by ALDE to field his preferred candidates. The EPP’s current candidate for President of the Commission – Manfred Weber – is not a popular choice across the EU, and Macron seeks to block him.

The leader (for now) of ALDE in the Parliament is Guy Verhofstadt, Macron’s preferred candidate is commissioner Margrethe Vestager, and Macron may even support a bid from Frenchman Michel Barnier. The likelihood of any of these candidates securing the top job – especially Vestager – depends on the dynamics of the groupings in the Parliament and the horse-trading between national leaders.

Why does this matter? Macron’s incentives when it comes to Brexit are now muddled. He doesn’t want another extension – and he has a veto to deny one. He only reluctantly assented to the medium length of one of up until 31st October. The expectation has been that next time Macron will use his veto and kick the UK out without a deal.

But Macron now has other priorities in the European Parliament and in Brussels more widely. His leverage depends on the strength of ALDE – which in part depends on the presence of those 19 Liberal Democrat MEPs. It is a simple numbers game: If Macron doesn’t give the UK an extension beyond 31st October, and Britain is kicked out with no deal, then ALDE loses those 19 Lib Dem MEPS and the added bargaining power they give Macron’s centrist coalition.

So, does he opt to get the Brits out of the EU? That would eliminate their disruptive presence, especially with the influx of Brexit Party MEPs. Or, does he risk this continued disruption – especially to the critical financial settlement – and retain those important Lib Dem MEPs to help him pursue his European agenda?

The calculation must be that Macron is now less likely to veto any requested extension – if it ever comes to that. But, Macron is unpredictable, and angry at the UK.

Of course, there is a deep irony to all of this. At the centre of it all sits a squabble over what to do with 73 MEPs from the UK, a country which has rejected the legitimacy of the European project in itself.


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