Eleventh-hour French strongarming forces Brexit deal
Four and a half years since the people of the UK voted to leave the EU, the Brexit process entered into its most dramatic phase last week as the French government decided to close its borders to the UK. Ostensibly isolating itself from a new strain of the coronavirus located in the southeast of England, the decision was deemed to have been an exercise in political opportunism as French President Emmanuel Macron sought to strongarm the UK into rethinking its post-EU future and indeed agree to terms significantly less ambitious than had originally been intended. In any case, the border closure was a powerful reminder to both sides of their reliance on the interconnectivity to which Europe has grown accustomed.
Having been elected on a pro-European platform, Macron quickly made clear his opposition to Europe’s second largest economy leaving the EU. Significantly less Anglophile than some of his predecessors, the French president has sought repeatedly to rebuild France’s leadership role in Europe at the expense of the UK’s ties with the continent. For the Elysee, the more that the UK is forced to concede, the greater the opportunity for an already economically and socially stricken France to counterbalance the overwhelming influence of Germany on the future of the EU. Earlier last week, with the UK almost at the end of the 12-month transition period it had agreed with the EU, and with no deal in sight, the snap decision by the French government to close the borders put significant pressure on negotiators to come to an agreement.
Following a decision to close borders by air, rail and road, thousands of trucks waiting to get out of Britain were forced to park on the main motorways leading to Britain’s ports in scenes that brought home the potential realities of a truly disconnected UK to trade and travel. Due to a new and seemingly more contagious strain of the coronavirus in England, within hours thousands of vehicles were lined up at a former airfield close to the M20 highway that runs from London to the port of Dover. Without food and adequate sanitation, the increasingly apocalyptic scene raised fears of shortages of certain perishable food items in Britain in light of the restrictions, and in the case of a no-deal Brexit. Though the UK government was keen to communicate that it understood the reason for the new measures and that it was working hard for a resumption of a free flow of traffic between the two countries, it is no secret that it did not appreciate the restrictions.
Significantly less Anglophile than some of his predecessors, the French president has sought repeatedly to rebuild France’s leadership role in Europe at the expense of the UK’s ties with the continent.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Though officials from both countries mentioned that they were working to unblock the flow of trade as fast as possible, officials in London were left in little doubt that Macron was using the mutant COVID strain as leverage for a Brexit deal. It was believed that the French president, COVID-positive and isolating himself, was under increasing pressure to cave in over hard-line domestic demands on fishing access to British waters and sign a deal. The arbitrary closing of borders in one of the busiest weeks for families and business alike was deemed as undue pressure by the French government and in many respects resulted in the guaranteeing of EU fishing in British waters until 2026, making the “independent coastal state” that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised voters increasingly unfeasible.
After a long 72 hours, having reached a resolution to resume travel and trucking, the prime minister similarly was able at last to reach some sort of deal, which he announced as his “Christmas present” to the British people. The free trade agreement, based on zero tariffs and zero quotas with the EU, has come at some cost and the manoeuvring of the French government this past week no doubt played its part in pushing the UK to reach a resolution of sorts.
The agreement is not yet ratified and in reality only time will tell how both sides will be able to cooperate. In the UK the very real prospect of a physical border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is still a concern shared by many and which could severely affect trade. Separately, the pandemic has caused an acute job crisis that was not taken into account when Brexit was voted for. Any movement of jobs to the EU will now have a greater impact on unemployment than previously considered, a fact that will feature prominently depending on how wide the effects of Brexit on business will be.
As the UK prime minister sought to sooth concerns over an agreement that many have thought was rushed, despite the great time it took to negotiate, he said: “Although we have left the EU, this country will remain culturally, emotionally, historically, strategically, geologically attached to Europe.” The events of this past week have showed how rapid and destabilizing the absence of an agreement to travel and trade freely can be. Despite the concerns of voters about the creeping federalism of Europe, the reality of an interconnected world is that international cooperation is central to prosperity.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid