Ignore those telling you that the UK v the EU is the fight to watch as Brexit negotiations approach another deadline. The true fight is between Paris and Berlin, and it is one that has been brewing for some time.
Whilst the EU has been largely united behind Michel Barnier, its lead negotiator over the course of Brexit talks, the UK was largely divided, something that was reflected in the approaches adopted by both Theresa May and Boris Johnson. Now however, with there being signs that the UK could be moving on State Aid or subsidy regimes post Brexit, Paris and Berlin will find themselves asking just how much can they concede for the EU.
Berlin has been the one to continuously fret about the strategic and geopolitical consequences of the UK leaving the EU, something that it sees as a huge loss for the EU but especially Germany. This view has led Chancellor Merkel to lean on the side of a polite, civilized and constructive process with London, with many taking the view that ‘better if in, but if not, then close.”
Macron’s stance on Brexit has been far more defensive, however, and far more influenced by his domestic politics. For example, in 2019 whilst facing competitive elections to the European Parliament, Macron took the view that the three outcomes from the divorce negotiations-an inferior deal, no deal or a referendum and reversal-would all benefit him in his contest with Marie Le Pen. As each would demonstrate the cost and difficulty of leaving the EU.
This line of thinking is reinforced by Elysée’s belief that Brexit is an opportunity for France and the EU. In an EU of 27, France is likely to become the foreign and security hegemon to counterbalance Germany’s economic dominance. Macron’s vision of the EU prioritizes those areas where Paris has an advantage over Berlin.
Added to this is the Elysée’s view that the UK is negotiating from a position of weakness. France has less at stake in avoiding a no-deal scenario than Ireland, Germany or the Netherlands which are much more invested in EU-UK trade.
These reasons combined with the wider domestic issue of fisheries and appearing strong to his electorate-which is increasingly viewing his government with suspicion over its handling of the pandemic- are why differences persist between Berlin and France.
These tensions will eventually come to bear at one point or another. The EU must hope that they do not produce a seismic rupture.