The EU a revolving door?
In June, Macron said the EU’s door would remain open to the UK until the Brexit negotiations are concluded. But does he have the people behind him? I discovered on my recent bike trip through France that many had already shut the door and who can blame them – it’s for their own preservation.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with Theresa May on the 13th of June, the week before the Brexit negotiations began, Macron suggested the UK’s decision to leave the EU could be reversed. Responding to a question about the German Finance Minister’s earlier comment, the newly elected French leader repeated that ‘until the negotiations come to an end there is always the chance to reopen the door’. But, after reaffirming that he respected the will of the British and French people he warned ‘as the negotiations go on it will be more difficult to go backwards’.
I read the coverage of May’s visit in my tent the following evening. The next day as I cycled along, I contemplated the President’s comments which seemed patently at odds with the views of many of the French people I’d spoken with who, at best, had already politely closed the door while others seemed to be locking it shut.
For example in La Poissonnière, our host for the night tentatively informed us that she’d already accepted Brexit and the UK’s departure. In Charoll a few days later, a factory owner was unabashed in saying he wasn’t sad to see the UK go. Earlier on, on the Nantes-Brest canal, one young man went so far as to say he’d never regarded the UK, and more specifically England, to be a part of Europe.
As I listened to people’s views, the realities of Brexit and the implications of Parliament having triggered Article 50 began to sink in. I realised that before the trip I’d been in denial; I’d been so distracted by the internal political chaos unleashed by Brexit and the uncertainties regarding our terms of exit that I hadn’t got my head around the actual idea we were leaving. Moreover, because the exit negotiations hadn’t begun yet, I hadn’t even considered that in France people would feel we’d already done so.
As this reality sunk in and I carried out more interviews, I came to the somewhat sympathetic opinion that people’s disappointment and anger was a natural response to our original rejection. I also saw that Brexit had posed a real threat to France.
Our trip began less than a month after the presidential elections. During the campaign Marie Le Pen led a rising tide of nationalism and anti-EU feeling; she didn’t win, but between the first and second rounds with Brexit looming in the background, France’s own membership of the EU must have seemed precarious.
During our trip those I spoke with were clearly immensely relieved Le Pen had not been successful and nobody seemed to think leaving the EU was a good idea. In fact many viewed Brexit as a disastrous act of self-sabotage. Nevertheless, nearly all pointed out that the EU needed reforming.
I didn’t manage to interview anyone who admitted to supporting the National Front but saw plenty of evidence of its pervasiveness amongst the campaign posters for the National Assembly elections, which took place the first two weekends we were there. We also came across a number of posters for France’s own leave campaign – Frexit.
And, despite Macron’s decisive victory and the National Front’s limited gains, France isn’t out of the woods yet. Although En Marche obtained an absolute majority in the National Assembly, the election was tarnished by an exceptionally low turn out (only 42% of the population voted) indicating the extent of political disillusionment. Since then, Macron’s popularity has plummeted owing to concerns over proposed reforms to social housing and labour laws while France still faces the on-going economic crisis. This was evident as I passed through countless boarded up houses and bankrupt businesses in seemingly deserted villages, particularly in central France away from the main cities and tourist hot spots.
Across Europe many now believe that the initial threat posed by Brexit to EU stability has diminished. However, they also think that the UK’s departure will negatively impact the economies of existing member states. On the open road as I pedalled along, the open door metaphor kept popping into my mind. Given our original rejection and on-going economic uncertainty I wondered if Macron and Europe’s other leaders would be able to hold the door ajar against the sway of public opinion (only 25% of people in France said in a recent MORI poll that they were sad to see the UK go), and if so, in the event the UK suddenly decided it wanted to stay, would Europe have us back?