Blog: Stephen Booth: Brexit’s legacy, the Northern Ireland Protocol, small boats – and Britain’s tense relationship with Macron – ConservativeHome

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

To the relief of the French and European establishment, Emmanuel Macron’s re-election makes him the first two-term French President in 20 years since Jacques Chirac. However, the 17-point margin of his victory over Marine Le Pen does not tell the whole story. Voter turnout was the lowest in a presidential run-off since 1969 and Le Pen increased her vote tally from 10.6 million in the second round in 2017 to 13.2 million this time around.

It is probable that Macron will secure a working majority in the National Assembly elections in June. But with such a high percentage of disaffected voters on the left and the right, and both camps opposed to giving Macron a mandate to pursue his economic reforms, surprises cannot be ruled out.

Five years is a long time in politics. However, the nature of Macron’s victory and the trend towards polarisation of the French political system does beg the question of what his domestic legacy will be. Having decimated the traditional centre-left and centre-right parties, which has allowed the fringes on the left and right to flourish, can the centre produce a successor to Macron in 2027?

Nevertheless, in the immediate term, Macron will feel that his victory puts him in the ascendency on the European stage and he will continue have a strong influence over the direction of the EU, including on relations with the UK. Hopes of a swift reset of Anglo-French relations following Macron’s re-election look unlikely to materialise. France’s Finance Minister, Bruno Le Maire, made a point of telling reporters after Macron’s victory that “our first challenge will not be the relationship between the UK and France.”

Macron is likely to double down on his vision for EU integration and “strategic autonomy”. He has some like-minded allies for this agenda, such as Italy’s Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, who this week called for “pragmatic federalism” in the fields of economy, energy, and security and defence.

However, in security and foreign policy, Macron could struggle to assert French leadership within the EU as he would like. The crisis in Ukraine has strengthened the position of key UK allies, particularly among the Nordics, Baltics, and several Eastern countries, that EU policy must not undermine or be in competition with NATO. Macron’s previous efforts to open a seemingly unilateral dialogue with Vladimir Putin and his ambivalence towards US leadership of NATO continue to make them suspicious of French strategic direction in this area.

The Prime Minister’s leadership on Ukraine has built up goodwill towards the UK in many of these countries, and the UK should continue to work with these nations on making the case that European security cooperation should enhance rather than detract from NATO. The UK’s response to Ukraine illustrates that Global Britain does not come at the expense of a commitment to European security and prosperity in the most fundamental sense.

Clearly, there remain difficult issues between the UK and France where Macron appears reluctant to help. For example, notwithstanding the Government’s new policies to tackle people smuggling and illegal cross-Channel migrant crossings on small boats, the problem would be much more easily addressed through French cooperation to stop the perilous crossings at source on the French coast. However, politically, this remains a bigger problem for the Government than for Macron.

Meanwhile, France remains strongly opposed to a softening of the EU’s stance in the talks on the Northern Ireland Protocol. The Queen’s Speech on 10 May is expected to include plans for a bill giving the Government new powers to replace parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol unilaterally, in an effort to break the impasse.

The UK should brace itself for a political reaction from Brussels, but it should continue to underline its overriding responsibility to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. It should emphasise to its allies, in the EU and outside it, that a new political bargain that commands the consent of both communities in Northern Ireland is in the wider European interest and trumps the narrow focus on the EU’s technocratic regulatory order.

With growing fears over unfair Chinese competition and supply chain resilience resulting from the experience of the pandemic, France’s calls for a more interventionist and strategic EU industrial policy may find an increasingly receptive audience. This could have implications for economic competition and cooperation between the UK and the EU, particularly in strategic technological and energy sectors.

The UK should work with Germany to ensure that a renewed EU focus on resilience does not spiral into a form of protectionism that strains UK-EU economic relations further. Germany’s Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is still bedding into the leadership role vacated by Angela Merkel. His three-way coalition is in the process of dramatically changing the course of German foreign and energy policy in response to the war in Ukraine, and Berlin’s recent commitment to buy US F-35 jet aircraft illustrates that Germany will not necessarily instinctively “buy European”, as Macron would wish.

Meanwhile, despite the recent Anglo-French flashpoints, which also included the row over the AUKUS alliance, more amiable bilateral relations in several areas should be mutually advantageous. The UK should continue to emphasise that both countries remain important security partners within the NATO framework. Germany’s newfound appetite for defence spending may offer Macron another option on paper, but German strategic culture and its readiness to act is likely take far longer to change significantly.

Equally, the UK, unlike Germany, shares French enthusiasm for nuclear power as a means of bolstering domestic energy production. The UK would benefit from French industrial expertise and the UK offers a willing commercial partner.

Much has been made of the poor state of the Anglo-French relationship since Brexit. Personality clashes between Macron and Boris Johnson may well have something to do with it. However, the root remains the geopolitical fallout from Brexit, as viewed in London and in Paris, which are to be found in the concepts of Global Britain and EU strategic autonomy. Both countries therefore look set to continue to rub along uneasily, mixing elements of cooperation and competition along the way, but the UK has tools at its disposal to offer a constructive Anglo-French and UK-EU relationship.

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