The fraught history of Anglo-French relations over the past few centuries — and of the UK’s difficult entry and equally difficult exit from the EU in the past few decades — suggests that the final days of Brexit negotiations were always going to end in a stand-off between Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron.
So it turned out this week, when British officials singled out France and accused Mr Macron, France’s president, of undermining the chances of a last-minute agreement on the future trading relationship between the UK and the EU once the post-Brexit transition period ends on December 31.
Both the British and the French said Paris was refusing to yield on its demands for post-Brexit fishing rights in British waters. France also wanted strict controls to ensure an economic “level playing field” where the UK would not be able to help its companies undercut European rivals with lighter regulations on state aid, the environment and labour.
For France and its supporters, particularly the fishing nations of Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium, such concessions are the price the UK must pay for continued tariff-free access to the EU’s huge single market after January 1.
Ever since Charles de Gaulle’s “Non!” denied the UK entry to the Common Market in the 1960s, France — Britain’s close trading partner, ally and onetime enemy — has taken the lead in continental Europe’s handling of its awkward island neighbour.
Mr Macron relishes the role as much as any of his predecessors in the Elysée Palace. In the past few days, he has deployed his ministers across the country to hammer home the message.
Jean Castex, prime minister, appeared in the port of Boulogne-sur-Mer on Thursday to reassure French fishermen who have long harvested British waters across the Channel.
“We hope to have a deal with the best possible conditions, but not at any price,” he said. “And certainly not if fishing is sacrificed as something that can be negotiated away.”
Clément Beaune, France’s Europe minister and a confidant of Mr Macron, confirmed on Friday morning that Paris would veto any unsatisfactory accord reached by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, and David Frost, his UK counterpart. “We owe it to the French, we owe it to our fishermen and other economic sectors,” he told Europe 1 radio.
That does not mean a deal won’t be reached in the next few days. For domestic political reasons, it is convenient for both Mr Johnson and Mr Macron to be seen to be standing firm against the importunate demands of the other side. “There is a certain element of theatre to the French behaviour,” said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, a think-tank. “They play Mr Nasty and [Germany’s Angela] Merkel plays Mrs Nice.”
The demand for continued EU fishing access to British waters, despite the tiny contribution the sector makes to the British and EU economies, is a particularly sensitive issue on which each side is bound to have to make concessions to reach a deal — the French because no deal would mean no fish at all and the British because much of the fish caught in its waters is in any case exported to Europe and processed in Boulogne.
“On both sides, they have not prepared public opinion for a compromise on fish,” says Elvire Fabry, senior research fellow at the Jacques Delors Institute.
“But the big issue is not there — it’s about the level playing field,” Ms Fabry said. Since the early 1990s, when Jacques Calvet of carmaker PSA famously compared the UK to a “Japanese aircraft carrier off the coast of Europe” because of Japanese investment in the British motor industry, France has fretted about potentially “unfair” competition from exporters across the Channel not playing by EU rules.
Unlike the French-led demands for fishing rights, France’s concerns about the “level playing field” and the need to uphold the integrity of the EU single market are widely shared among the union’s 27 remaining members. “Maybe Macron is more vocal,” said Ms Fabry, “but he can do it because he’s backed by Germany and many others.”
If the EU and the UK do finally reach agreement on trade, it will be in part because both France and the UK value bilateral defence and security ties that transcend the vexed matter of the UK’s EU membership and its aftermath: both are nuclear powers and permanent members of the UN Security Council and they are the two most formidable military powers in western Europe.
Failure to do a deal, on the other hand, would bode ill for the future. “If there is a very acrimonious no-deal Brexit and everyone throws buns at each other, that’s not a very good climate for bilateral defence and security co-operation,” said Mr Grant.
Either way, the Channel will remain 21 miles across at its narrowest point and the British Isles cannot leave Europe even if the UK has rejected the EU.
As Mr Macron told Mr Johnson in the Elysée Palace courtyard after a previous round of talks last year, he respected the British decision even if he regretted Brexit. “But I know in any case that the future of the United Kingdom as regards our history and our values can only be found in Europe, and that our geography is stubborn in this regard.”