BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The ‘De Gaulle moment’ that many had speculated about before Wednesday night’s Brexit summit did not come, but President Emmanuel Macron still lived up to the spirit of the post-war French leader by throwing his weight around the EU table.
Macron may not have used his veto, but his dogged determination to block a one-year extension to Britain’s divorce talks with the EU, favoured by a majority of European leaders, irritated many in Brussels - and chiefly Germany.
That could signal a new willingness to challenge Angela Merkel’s moral leadership in Europe as the German chancellor nears the end of her reign and France grows impatient with what it sees as her tendency to procrastinate.
Unusually, the EU’s two most powerful leaders failed to reach a Franco-German compromise at their bilateral meeting in Brussels before the summit with the other EU leaders started, diplomats said.
Macron was therefore left to fight a largely solo battle to convince his counterparts that giving Britain an extra year to make up its mind was too risky for EU institutions, and would send the wrong message about respecting popular votes.
French officials said Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain and Malta were sympathetic to Macron’s view - but others privately expressed irritation with what they saw as Gallic grandstanding.
“It probably has more to do with internal French politics,” a German diplomatic source said. “Maybe it is seen as important to contradict the Germans and be nasty to the Brits. In the end, it does not help Macron.”
At the end of the day, a typically European compromise to extend the Brexit talks to Oct. 31 - neither long nor short - was hatched. But on Thursday morning, Germany’s irritation burst into the open.
“A longer Brexit extension would have been better!” tweeted Norbert Roettgen, chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a member of Merkel’s party. “But Macron prioritised his own election campaign and interests over European unity.”
Macron said after the summit that he was ready to stand alone if that meant preserving the EU’s ‘common good’:
“I make no apology for being clear. I think it’s also France’s role in these moments to try and stick to principles.”
In what could be seen as bid to reclaim the mantle of EU leadership, he alluded to France’s role in launching the European integration project after World War Two - without mentioning President Charles De Gaulle’s veto of Britain’s accession in 1963.
A French diplomatic source said Macron was not content with face-saving compromises with Germany, but wanted to work with others such as the Dutch, Danes and Swedes to get his way.
“We’re not after a leadership of isolation - splendid isolation if you will - but after a leadership that can rally others around us,” the source said.
Macron feels Merkel’s tendency to avoid making decisions until the last minute - which France thinks had disastrous effects during the euro zone crisis - is counter-productive in the Brexit process.
He argued that EU leaders should not try to keep Britain in and so undo the result of its 2016 referendum, saying it would send the wrong message to voters in next month’s European Parliament elections who are tempted by populists vowing to oust unelected technocrats ignoring the will of the people.
One senior EU official said it had been a bad night for French diplomacy and that Macron, having pushed hard for a short extension, had been forced to compromise.
“He wants to show that the French president has a strong say. Maybe he fears that the European Parliament elections will show that France is more eurosceptic than Britain. In any case, it was ill-prepared,” the official said.
France and Germany, former enemies who lost millions of lives in wars in the last century, form the backbone of the historic, integrationist core of the European Union and their relationship remains vital to bloc’s future.
The French president needs Berlin’s support if he is to succeed in deepening cooperation on matters ranging from border control and immigration to European defence and fiscal policy.
Yet with Merkel’s power diminished as she heads towards the exit, Macron himself preoccupied by months of “yellow vest” protests against his economic policies, and Europe distracted by Brexit, the momentum for reform that he had sought is largely lost.
Moreover, Paris and Berlin are at odds on a wide range of subjects.
“Franco-German relations are in a troubled period,” said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform. He cited differences on euro zone reform, relations with the United States, EU defence policy and tax rules for the digital economy.
“More broadly, France wants Europe to be a power and therefore believes it needs radical reform,” Grant said. Germany is quite happy with the way the EU works at the moment.”
Yet differences between Paris and Berlin are nothing new, and the summit’s Brexit compromise showed that the classic fudge still had its place in EU diplomacy.
“Everything goes more smoothly when France and Germany are aligned,” an EU source said. “But in the end, this was very much a Franco-German compromise, in the best tradition of Franco-German cooperation.”
(The story corrects year of De Gaulle’s veto to 1963, not 1961, paragraph 12.)
Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Brussels and Luke Baker and Richard Lough in Paris; writing by Michel Rose; Editing by Richard Lough and Kevin Liffey