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As Britain prepares to leave the European Union – at some point – the role it once played is increasingly being taken up by France. At first glance this seems counter-intuitive. Prior to Brexit Britain and France were the major powers most likely to find themselves at odds. France favoured a smaller more tightly integrated EU. The UK pushed for expansion, partly to sabotage this in favour of a more market-oriented vision of the EU. France’s priorities seem not to have changed much since then. President Macron hoped to use the new European Commission nominations to push an integrationist agenda to save the EU project, and vetoed moves that would have put Albania and North Macedonia on the path to EU accession.
However, France and the UK also always had some subtle similarities in their approach to the EU. Vitally, both saw the EU as a tool to extend the national interest, not a way to subsume it. Britain entered the European project in search of opportunities for British business. French politicians saw the European project as a way to extend French influence and shore up its declining global profile. This contrasted with the attitude of the other major power, Germany, which was keenest on the potential of the EU as an alternative to the nation state due to its horror of nationalism and its own past.