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28/06/2016

Irritated French politicians begin backing Brexit

UK & Europe

Irritated French politicians begin backing Brexit

The opinion that the UK should be left to go it alone is gaining traction in France.

[Gwydion M Williams/Flickr]

Most French political parties officially support the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the EU. But cracks in the veneer are beginning to show, as more and more individual French politicians back Brexit. EurActiv France reports.

For Karine Berger, a Socialist MP, the way the UK handled the negotiation process caused serious trust issues.

“The discussion has evolved. The debate showed that the United Kingdom was asking for rewards for not respecting the common rules. Under these conditions, I do not think that a Brexit would harm the European Union,” she said.

This personal opinion is not officially shared by the Socialist Party, but according to EurActiv’s sources, it is one that is likely to be aired with increasing frequency in the coming weeks. And among the French members of the European Parliament ― the politicians that should be among the best-informed on the subject ― a majority appears to support Brexit.

In February, EurActiv published an editorial by socialist MEP Virginie Rozière (S&D group), in which she railed against “blackmail by the United Kingdom”, saying the country had “taken 60 years of European construction hostage for the benefit of a short-term domestic electoral agenda”.

“In exposing a view of Europe that is so at odds with the aims of the European project, the United Kingdom has made its eventual separation from continental Europe inevitable, albeit long and slow,” she added.

The political class appears to be reflecting an attitude generally shared by the French population on the subject. Asked how they would feel about seeing their British cousins go it alone, the French seem increasingly supportive of the idea.

In a survey published by OpinionWay and LCI in February, 49% of French polled said they believed the effect of a Brexit on the French economy would be neutral, and 39% said they thought it would have no effect on France at all.

Britain out for a closer Union

For the most fervent Europhiles, a Brexit offers the promise of a fresh start for the EU, whose integration process has stalled. Dominique Riquet, a centrist MEP from the pro-European Parti Radical-UDI, is leading a campaign to let the British go.

“I hope the English leave!,” Riquet told the newspaper La Voix du Nord on Sunday (6 March). “I have always thought they would be better off outside than inside, so I completely disapprove of the concessions won by Cameron. We need to progress […] and the United Kingdom will do all it can to make sure this doesn’t happen.”

Riquet may have been one of the first MEPs to display his pro-Brexit cards, but many of his fellow Liberal ALDE members in the European Parliament feel the same way. And the feeling is not limited to centrist Europhiles.

“He is not afraid to express what the majority is thinking,” one left-wing lawmaker said.

MEPs from left and right alike regularly complain about the fact that discussions over Brexit are holding up the EU from making progress in other areas. The subject has undeniably pushed other issues dear to the Europhiles off the top of the agenda, including economic and monetary integration and the finalisation of the Banking Union.

“This is exactly what the Brits wanted: to block the progress of the EU. And it’s working!” said an exasperated EU official.

Right out of patience

Members of the European Parliament’s right-wing parties no longer even try to hide their irritation with the United Kingdom. The spokesperson for the French Republican delegation in the European Parliament, Philippe Juvin, did not mince his words.

“If they want to leave the EU, let them leave!” Juvin said. The politician wants to use the British referendum to launch a wide-spread myth-busting operation, which, he argues, is a task that should not be left up to the Brits.

For Juvin, inaction will certainly lead to European disintegration. But he also sees Brexit as “a political opportunity to define a two-speed Europe with a hard core, which France should be a part of.”

The same exasperation is also beginning to show with other, usually more moderate politicians.

Alain Lamassoure, the head of the French Republican delegation in the European Parliament, told Les Échos in February, “We are wasting time with domestic British politics”. Lamassoure, a former Europe minister who is a veteran of European institutions, regularly cites Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, which provides a procedure by which a country can leave the EU if it so chooses. This provision was conceived with the UK in mind.

Opposed to a mini-Europe

For Yves Bertoncini, the director of Notre Europe – Jacques Delors Institute, this traditional French position inevitably brings us back to the idea of a “mini-Europe” of around six core states.

But he believes this configuration would make little sense. “The real debates take place between 28 countries! We will not sign a six-country TTIP deal, nor will we negotiate with Russia over Ukraine or manage the crisis in Syria as a group of six,” Bertoncini said.

Pascal Durand, a French Green MEP, understands the pro-Brexit attitude, but supports the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union. “The opinion of the European Green party is that Brexit is a bad development that would send the message that the European Union is no longer a project under construction, but in deconstruction,” he said.

While the opinions of individual members tend to be rather more nuanced, Durand appears to be one of the rare politicians who believes “that the UK’s leaving the EU is the worst possible outcome, as it would signify a nationalist withdrawal”.

Brexit followed by Frexit?

On the extreme right, the French National Front (NF) has adopted Brexit as a future national endeavour and announced that France should follow the same route. In February this year, the NF began speaking more clearly about the possibility of “Frexit”.

The party promised to hold a referendum on legislative, territorial, budgetary and monetary sovereignty within six months if Marine Le Pen is elected president in 2017.

“We will negotiate, and depending on the responses we get, we will campaign for one side or the other,” said Gilles Lebreton, a National Front lawmaker.

But even the National Front is divided on the issue. Some members, like Florian Philippot, advocate leaving the EU, while others support more pragmatic action, particularly on issues like the economy. Leaving the euro would be a poor economic decision for France, a fact that even the extreme right party broadly acknowledges.

Bertoncini believes the National Front’s proposal of a referendum has little chance of working.

“We have to distinguish between Euroscepticism, which is very widespread in Europe, and Europhobia, which is a typically British phenomenon. In France people complain, but not to the point of wanting to leave the euro, much less Europe,” the specialist said.

Even as increasing numbers of French public figures declare themselves in favour of Brexit over the coming weeks, this is unlikely to have any noticeable effect on the debate in the UK, whose outlook is more domestic than international.

“If the French want us to leave, that could very well motivate the English to vote to stay,” said a British diplomat.

Further Reading

  • 23 June: Brexit referendum