Allies of a Kind? Britain’s Departure from the EU spells uncertainty for the Franco-German Axis

Professor John Keiger

Friday 1st JulyAs EU member states respond to Britain’s decision to leave the EU, Professor John Keiger assesses the response in France and its implications.

The French have a lot on their plate at present. But that has not stopped their knee-jerk reaction to the triumph of the ‘Leave’ campaigners in Britain’s referendum result of 23 June. Despite the on-going state of emergency following two large terrorist attacks in the course of this year, the informal opening of campaigning for presidential and legislative elections in April-May 2017, the divisions in the ruling socialist majority and the main centre-right opposition republican party about the choice of candidate for the presidentials, widespread trade union and popular opposition to a government bill to liberalise workplace laws, national strikes, violent popular demonstrations, the rise and rise of the Front Nationaland Marine Le Pen, a President at twelve per cent in the latest opinion polls, an economy in the doldrums, not to mention a rowdy Euro football tournament to organise, France has managed to froth volumes at Britain’s likely departure from the EU. But what is most important is what has not been said thus far.

The reaction among France’s political class has been varied.  The divided socialist government was similarly split in its interpretation of Britain’s likely departure. Some saw it as a weakening of the European project and time to take stock, others as an opportunity for France to entice sections of the City of London to Paris, others as an opportunity to deepen the European project still further. Amongst the divided Republican party some such as former President Nicolas Sarkozy have seen the referendum result as a wake-up call for Brussels to limit its technocratic influence and a chance for the Franco-German tandem to lead Europe again. Differences on the right also concern France holding her own referendum. On the far right, however, there is united jubilation at the result, and the firm intention for a successful Marine Le Pen to hold a similar referendum on France’s future membership of the EU. The extreme left Jean-Luc Melenchon is similarly pleased at this apparent act of resistance to the capitalistic, technocratic European Union dominated by Germany.

But what is surprisingly absent from the analysis are the long-term implications for France of a British withdrawal. They are amply summed up in the couple of days following the French state’s reaction to the ‘Brexit’ furore. President Francois Hollande’s first reaction  to the British result was that he and Germany’s Chancellor Merkel should meet immediately to discuss how to deal with the question and to call for Britain immediately to trigger article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to enact its withdrawal. This pontifical declaration fell flat. The German Chancellor’s first reaction to the referendum result was to declare, in opposition to Hollande, that Britain should in fact be given time to prepare itself. The Franco-German leadership call was then progressively and humiliatingly downgraded to a trilateral meeting with the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, then to a meeting of the original six founding members of the EEC. Meanwhile in an act of clear defiance the foreign ministers and senior civil servants of ten states (Poland, Hungary, Rumania, Spain, Greece, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Slovakia, Austria and… the United Kingdom) met last Monday 27 June and drew conclusions (according to the Poles) diametrically opposed to the Berlin meeting of the « Six » and their call for a renewal of the European project. Here then is the crux of France’s problem. With a British withdrawal she is left confronted by an old demon dating from 1871: management of a dominant Germany on the continent of Europe. France has sought to counter German power, whether military, political or economic, by two means. First to secure Britain as an ally and ensure she remained committed to the continent of Europe, which she was successful in doing prior to 1914 and 1939, but which she was unable to achieve in the immediate post-war years.  Second, and often failing the former, to enmesh Germany in a European-wide political and economic organisation able to dilute her sovereignty and power, which she attempted to do from 1925 to 1933 and in which she was successful from 1951 through the various stages of European integration.

So where is France left now?  The German problem for France is one that dare not speak its name, especially since the 1963 Franco-German friendship treaty. But future President Georges Pompidou pointedly remarked that one only has to scratch the surface in France to find hostility to her German neighbour. The threat now is not military, but certainly economic, financial and inevitably political. With Britain’s withdrawal France loses a counter-balance to her powerful neighbour and is left with a European Union that is reluctant to bow to French directives. For the moment she is reluctant to face up to that, but denial is a not a basis for policy.

*Professor John Keiger is  Director of Research at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. His publications include France and the World since 1870  (2001).