Macron’s Presidency has been dealt a serious – and perhaps terminal – blow

21 Jun

Two months ago, in my rundown of Emmanuel Macron’s re-election, I predicted that the President of France would face “something of an uphill task” to retain his majority in the National Assembly, faced, as he was, with challenges from Jean-Luc Mélenchon to his left and Marine Le Pen to his right. Following last Sunday’s second round of the French legislative elections, my prediction has proved to have been on the money.

Macron’s Ensemble centrist alliance won 245 seats – down from 345 at the Assembly’s dissolution, and 44 seats short of the 289 needed for a majority. Meanwhile, Mélenchon’s coalition of left-wingers, communists, and greens soared from 17 seats to 131. And two months on from being bested by Macron in the second round of the presidential election, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National shot from 9 seats to 89.

That leaves Macron well short of the majority needed to get his legislative program through. Previously in the Fifth Republic, Presidents have lost their party majorities, or been forced into so-called ‘cohabitations’ with Assembly majorities of the opposing party. But never before, since De Gaulle brought the parliamentary Fourth Republic to a close in 1958 and replaced it with one dominated by the President, has an Assembly been this well-hung.

As such, the prospects for government look uncertain. Macron lost several allies and ministers, including Richard Ferrand, the president of the National Assembly, and Brigitte Bourguignon, minister of health and social solidarity. Élisabeth Borne, his prime minister and a technocrat, almost lost to an unknown in her seat, and may well, at only a month in the role, become the shortest-lived prime minister of the Fifth Republic so far.

Certainly, Macron’s legislative agenda looks weakened. Parliamentary horse-trading will be the order of the day. The centre-right Republicans could provide him with a majority for crucial plans for raising the retirement age and reforming pensions. But the party has already expressed its desire to remain in opposition, unwilling to taint itself with an association with Macron as it worries about Le Pen’s threat from its right.

Stalemate thus appears to be the order of the day. Macron could call fresh elections in a year or so. But it appears French voters are now stuck in three blocs of the right, left, and centre, and it is debatable how much another vote might change. Instead, the next five years seems likely to hold for France further economic stagnation, failed integration policies, rising crime, sclerotic unemployment, and crisis in Europe.

Of course, as President, Macron retains full control over his country’s foreign policy. He has displayed this facility clearly in recent months with his efforts to prevent Russia facing “humiliation” over Ukraine, and to press for further integration through France’s six months chairing the European Council. Yet Macron’s hopes of leading a united Europe are challenged by ongoing disagreements over how to handle Putin’s invasion – and by a potential Eurozone debt crisis.

De Gaulle was able to replace the Fourth Republic by the Fifth due to the crisis in Algeria and the inability of a dysfunctional parliamentary system to handle it. A central plank of Mélenchon’s platform is to begin consultations on tearing up the constitutional order and inaugurating a Sixth Republic. As Macron finds the political tide overwhelming him, don’t be surprised if the calls for reform grow louder – and produce, as Macron’s successor, either a Marxist or Marine Le Pen.

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Stephen Booth: Brexit is a process, not an event. So it’s far too early to judge whether it’s working.

16 Jun

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

Next week will see another Brexit anniversary as we reach six years since the 2016 referendum. Meanwhile, the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), which marked the beginning of the UK’s new relationship with the EU has been in place for nearly 18 months. No doubt we will be debating the merits and consequences of Brexit for many years to come, but what can be said at this point?

Much of the Brexit debate has focused on trade and the economy, and the deteriorating economic situation has prompted some commentators to lay the blame squarely at the door of Brexit. However, it is almost impossible to disentangle any Brexit effect from the much larger economic shock resulting from the pandemic, and now the war in Ukraine, which have taken a heavy toll on the global economy.

Due to the volatility caused by these global events, it is difficult to make short-term comparisons across economies. However, according to OECD figures, the UK economy exceeded its pre-pandemic (Quarter Four, 2019) level of GDP for the first time in the first quarter of 2022, by 0.7 per cent. I

By contrast, German and Italian GDP was still below pre-pandemic levels (by 1.0 per cent and 0.4 per cent respectively) in the first quarter of 2022. And while UK inflation is at the high end compared to other economies, the Netherlands and Poland are both experiencing higher levels, illustrating that the UK is not a particular European outlier.

Given the degree of change to the UK’s trading arrangements, it would be a surprise if Brexit had no impact. At the time of the Spring Statement, the Office for Budgetary Responsibility noted that UK trade had not recovered as quickly as other advanced economies and that the trade intensity of the UK economy had fallen as a result. However, looking beyond the headline figures presents a complicated picture, not easily explained by Brexit alone.

The biggest contributors to the UK’s decrease in trade intensity are from a decline in imports of goods and services from the EU, even though the barriers to trade have overwhelmingly been erected on the EU side of the border (the UK has delayed imposing checks on EU goods entering the UK).

Equally, UK exports of goods to the EU have recovered more strongly than UK exports to non-EU countries. The reorientation of supply chains may have played a role in this. However, much of the global demand for goods was generated by US consumers, and the UK is not a major exporter of the products (computers and electrical equipment) that the US imported over this period.

Finally, the UK’s export mix is more dominated by services than its competitors. The pandemic has had far-reaching consequences for trade in services and, paradoxically, again it is imports rather than exports of services to the EU that have seen the biggest falls since the pandemic. This evidence would suggest that greater barriers to exporting to the EU seem to be playing only a limited role in the UK’s disappointing post-pandemic trade performance. This shouldn’t be cause for celebration, but it is important to diagnose the problem properly.

On the question of immigration, which dominated political debate prior to the referendum, it is notable that the UK has remained open to global talent and skills. The tight labour market is primarily to do with older UK workers exiting the market rather than the loss of EU workers, the vast majority of which have been replaced from outside the EU under the UK’s liberalised visa system.

Net migration to the UK was estimated by the Office of National Statistics to be 239,000 in the year ending June 2021 and work-related immigration to the UK has recovered strongly in the wake of the pandemic. There were 277,069 work-related visas granted in the year ending March 2022 (including dependants). This was a 129 per cent increase on the year ending March 2021 and is 50 per cent higher than in the year ending March 2020.

It is also clear that despite continuing high numbers of arrivals, public attitudes on immigration have softened significantly now that the UK is able to devise its own policy without the strictures of EU freedom of movement. According to Ipsos-Mori, the proportion of people wanting to see immigration reduced has fallen from around 65 per cent in 2015 to 42 per cent in 2022. The share saying immigration levels should stay the same or be increased has risen to 50 per cent from around 30 per cent. Those dissatisfied with the Government’s handling of immigration are largely concerned with illegal Channel crossings.

Meanwhile, there was a fear that Brexit would consign the UK to geopolitical irrelevance on the global stage. However, the UK entered into the new AUKUS security partnership with the US and Australia and it has played a leading role in the international effort to support Ukraine.

The crisis with Russia has not united the EU behind a common foreign policy to the exclusion of Britain. As I noted in a previous column, Emmanuel Macron’s drive for EU “strategic autonomy” on foreign and security policy has been severely undermined, probably fatally, by the fact that many in Northern and Eastern Europe have concluded that the US and the UK are more reliable partners in this field than France and Germany.

This is not to suggest that Brexit has been plain sailing or that the UK does not face significant difficulties. Clearly, the row between London and Brussels over the Northern Ireland Protocol has the potential to escalate and fundamentally destabilise the UK-EU relationship yet again. The domestic economic and political challenges of increasing productivity, improving economic performance across the entire country, and reforming public services pre-date Brexit.

Some Brexiteers are impatient for greater divergence from the EU. Some Remainers will continue to see Brexit as the root of every problem. However, Brexit is a process rather than an event and the experience of the past six years should demonstrate that the UK’s decision to leave the EU does not in of and itself mean it is on the road to success or failure.

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The Northern Ireland Protocol. Johnson’s new weakness is feeding the EU’s rapacity, his colleagues’ fervour and Ministers’ ambitions.

13 Jun

In December 2020, Michael Gove and Maros Sefvocic, on behalf of Britain and the EU, agreed a deal amending the operability of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The settlement covered most goods, state aid, unfettered access to the market in Great Britain and ending checks from goods going to Great Britain from Northern Ireland.

In June last year, the EU agreed an extension to the grace periods for chilled meats over which it had threatened legal action three months earlier.  “I’ll let you in on a secret,” Sam Lowe, a trade expert, wrote recently: “everyone, including on the EU side, knows that these grace periods and derogation are not going anywhere”.

And in April, the EU changed its own law to ensure that medicines entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain will not need additional labelling or testing.

That’s three slices of proof that the UK and the EU are more capable of resolving difficulties with the Northern Ireland Protocol when they put their minds to it.  You broke it, you own it?  Both parties own the Protocol.  Both can ease its workings.  So what’s the problem?

Let’s start by agreeing that the EU doesn’t feel it owes Boris Johnson any favours – even if it doesn’t view the Protocol as, in Dominic Raab’s famous accusation, “the price the UK would pay for Brexit”.

It sees no reason to hand the UK a competitive advantage: hence standoffs over standards and regulation. This would be all very well were the rows about the Protocol a simple matter of disagreements between the Government and the EU.

However, through the mass of detail about trusted traders, VAT and subsidy rules thrusts the mighty ship of the Belfast Agreement.

It is hard to argue with the Government’s view that the Protocol has turned out to be incompatible with the Agreement.  There is the legal dimension.  That the Protocol has been found to be in conflict with the Act of Union suggests that the status of Northern Ireland has been changed contrary to Section 1 iii) of the Agreement.

Or, if that doesn’t persuade you, there’s the political dimension – for which we must turn to Johnson’s emollient Belfast Telegraph essay last month.

As he pointed out, many unionists object to the Protocol, so those they elect are boycotting Northern Ireland’s institutions, which makes the operation of Strand One of the Agreement impossible.  This takes one to a final dimension: the spirit of the Agreement.

I will concede that this ghostly presence is incompatible with a hard land border if others will concede that it is also incompatible with a hard sea border.

As matters stand, the land border is soft enough for armed republicanism to gain little traction, and the Protocol should allow a sea border enough to keep armed loyalism in the same condition – and unionists in Northern Ireland’s executive.

That would honour the spirit of the Agreement, which translates as: “let’s keep the show on the road”. But the EU is preoccupied with lighting fires beneath the Prime Minister’s feet, and so risks setting the Province ablaze.

No wonder the Government is urgently seeking a solution. It comes in the form of a Bill that would create the conditions for the disapplication of chunks of the Protocol.  Were these bits triggered, would some EU states and the Commission press for a hard border, or controls at Ireland’s own EU borders, to protect the internal market?

Presuming that the Irish Government would take no such action, and making the further assumption that any republican backlash would be containable, I turn to legalities.

I’m unmoved by lectures about the sanctity of international law from the EU – itself a serial breaker of such law over World Trade Organisation rules, “flouting rulings on GMO crops, hormone beef, and Airbus subsidies,” as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has pointed out. Or from the green jersey Democrats in Congress.

But three points apply here.  First, Britain must act in its own interest in the last resort, just as the EU itself does. Nonetheless, second, there may be a reputational penalty to pay for doing so.

And, third, whether there is or not, the worst of all worlds would be to threaten to take action, be pilloried in the meantime for flouting international law …and then not be able to act at all, because your domestic situation is so weak.

This is the position that Johnson may now find himself in.  On paper, he has a majority of about 80.  In practice, two in five of his own MPs have no confidence in him.

He may survive the autumn, and its Privileges Committee inquiry into whether he misled the Commons over Downing Street parties, but it’s unlikely.  He may then go on to win the next election with a workable majority, but that’s unlikely too.

I didn’t support last week’s no confidence move against him, believing that the case against him (he can’t run a coherent government) was met by the case for (he has sustained no major policy defeat).

But what’s now done can’t be undone and, since then, the briefing and leaks about whether the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill will keep or break international law has been anarchic.  Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove want one thing. The European Research Group wants another.

Then there is Liz Truss, with her leadership ambitions. So the Prime Minister faces prospective revolts over the Bill from his backbench left, right – or both at once.

And he has no guarantee of the DUP being lured back into government. Threats to break international law proved unsustainable last time, given the outcry from the Tory backbenches.  The fate of a Bill that may be in the same ball park is uncertain.

And that’s before one factors in the Lords, the courts and delay before the Government could use the Parliament Act to force the Bill through, assuming that it’s then in a position to do so anyway.

The durable solution to the Protocol is to do what’s been done before: get a deal.  That might mean dangling before the EU a gain that it wants, such as the defence and security deal it was denied during the Brexit negotiations.  But such a gambit is unlikely to work for this government.

Crudely but simply, the EU thinks that it’s got Johnson where it wants him, which is not all that far from where Theresa May was before her administration collapsed.  Authority badly battered; leadership under siege.

It is unwilling to offer him any concession that it can save up for a successor.  So it is that the EU’s rapacity and his colleagues’ fervour are being fed by Johnson’s weakness – though I don’t blame him for signing the Protocol, which ought to be workable, as we have seen, with enough EU goodwill.

As I write, the Prime Minister looks more likely to have bought off the European Research Group than the Tory champions of international law.

His gamble seems to be that the progress of this Bill, the compatability of which with that law is contested, will be enough to persuade the DUP to re-enter government in Stormont.  After which, he will dare the EU to make concessions without which the Executive may collapse again – and if they won’t, then trigger the Bill’s provisions.

Churchill said that jaw jaw was better than war war.  His biographer’s bet is that bluff will work better than either.  I hope he is right, but the odds are not in his favour.

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Matt Hancock: Putin’s war is reminding us of a lasting truth – that our system and values are better than his

25 May

Matt Hancock is a former Secretary of State for Health, and is MP for West Suffolk.

The battles we see across Eastern Ukraine, for Mariupol, Donetsk, Severodonetsk and countless towns and villages, is not just a fight to protect European security against brutal, criminal, aggression. Of course, it is that – and, alone, that need to bring justice for the horrific crimes committed is enough to justify the war.

It is not even just a fight for the immutability of international borders, and the protection of all nations from strong offensive neighbours, vital as that is. It is not even just about protecting the food supplies to the poorest countries on earth, although that alone is an ethical imperative.

The battle for Ukraine is a fight for enlightenment values, of the liberty of people and the freedom of self-determination of nation states.

The brave soldiers fighting these battles for Ukraine are winning a fight for us all. In doing so, it is critical we support Ukraine in a fight to win. It is, as the inspirational Volodymyr Zelensky has said, for Ukraine and Ukraine alone to determine her future. That is what self-determination is all about.

The recent drive, apparently coordinated between Paris and Berlin, to push Ukraine for a compromise settlement must be resisted, as it would incentivise aggression, on the grounds that at least you might win some ground. Would you offer a wolf the sacrifice of just one limb?

On the contrary, Russia’s attack has so spectacularly failed in its bid to split NATO and undermine the West, and we must ensure that Ukraine alone decides her future. Giving up any ground now may appear to help in the short term, but it will undoubtedly cause far-reaching problems down the line.

If we fail to support Ukraine to win back her land, what’s stopping China, or any other dictatorship for that matter, doing exactly what Russia has done to Ukraine? Any such action would inevitably act as a green light – offering little to no deterrent.

While the war in Ukraine still rages on, we have seen some progress this week. Amid the bitter fighting, one border post was recaptured, painted in the now familiar yellow and blue that we see on flagpoles everywhere. In a highly symbolic manoeuvre, the Ukrainian army has pushed back the invaders to their border. Who are we to tell the Ukrainian people that some of them would have to live under the Russian yolk, with the dictatorial tyranny this brings?

For this war is bigger than being about security, or justice. It’s about our way of life.

Here, I see a glimmer of hope. For we can now see, with the clarity that comes from a shocking sight, that the drift to dictatorship in Russia and China has awful consequences.  Throughout my political life, support for democracy has waned, and those who see the cacophony of debate as a weakness have espoused their “strong man” theory of government.

I have long worried about the increasing numbers of people who have seemingly admired one party systems, and seen the long term horizons and lack of debate as a good thing, or at least, a price worth paying for prosperity and strength. In the wake of the economic crash, the expenses scandal, and growing social media noise over the past decade or so, it’s been harder to make the argument for the principles embedded in the enlightenment of the promotion of individual liberty and democratic institutions as the cornerstone of a good society.

If, like me, you think that everyone has a contribution to make, and that the role of society is to help everyone reach that potential, then the counterexample that the rights of the individual should be subordinate to the needs of the state seemed to be gaining ground. Open, liberal democracies support innovation and protect people from the overweening state.

Instead, over the past decade, the Russian invasion of Crimea, and President Xi’s removal of term limits should have told us clearly where this move away from supporting democracy would lead. But the case for democracy, especially among younger voters, has increasingly fell on deaf ears.

But democracy isn’t only morally superior but practically superior too. Dictatorship is not only bad but rubbish. Dictators and dictatorships suffocate innovation. By their very nature, they restrict freedom and don’t allow people to get on with whatever they choose to do without getting consent from any given dictatorial regime.

In a dictatorship, people tell you what they think you want to hear. I know from experience that, in liberal democracies like ours, plenty of people tell you what you don’t want to hear. It is essential we in the West don’t take this for granted and win again the case for democracy.

Now those of us who cherish democracy, with all of its noise and flaws, have two stark and real examples. China’s continued attempt at a Zero Covid policy is bringing misery.  Its refusal to use vaccines that work, like the Oxford vaccine, because they aren’t Chinese, is plunging their economy into freewill and driving up prices and harming prosperity everywhere. And just look at the shocking treatment by the Chinese dictatorship revealed by the Uyghur Police Files story this week.

China’s abuses of minorities and Russia’s horrific war are showing dictatorship up for what it is. Talking to the wonderful Ukrainian family I’m hosting in my home in West Suffolk makes me feel this particularly acutely.

No longer can democracy be seen as a soft alternative to bold and decisive regimes.  So yes, we must help Ukraine win its war, for the justice for people in Ukraine, and we must support them to win without concession to bolster security everywhere.

But even more than that, we must win once again the case for freedom, for the moral force of the democratic way of life, and win over another generation that this, in the words of Churchill, is the worst system, except all the others that have been tried. That, once more, is proving itself a timeless truth. That is what our brothers and sisters in Ukraine are fighting for – and we must be with them to the end.

Garvan Walshe: Finland and Sweden’s NATO application shows how much Russia has already lost 

12 May

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

Finland and Sweden applying to join NATO is more evidence that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been a monstrous mistake. Moscow has maintained an effective veto on Swedish and Finnish membership since ether Cold War. Now, with Russian troops bogged down in the Donbas, Helsinki and Stockholm can join while Russia’s too busy to do much about it.

It also complicates Putin’s tactical situation.  NATO forces could soon be positioned to open a second front north of St Petersburg, limiting Russia’s ability to intimidate the Baltic States, and to broaden the directions from which Murmansk on the Arctic coast can be subject to counterattacks.

Instead of Finland defending a 830 mile border with Russia, Russia will now have to defend another 830 miles of border with NATO. The island of Gotland, from which the Baltic Sea can be controlled, will be a NATO, not just a Swedish, island.

But the most important difference is geopolitical. Look at the globe from the top, and list the countries across the Pole from Russia: the United States (through Alaska), Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the UK, Norway, Sweden and Finland. This arc sweeps down through the Baltic States, Poland and the other countries that escaped Soviet domination in 1989, to Ukraine. All except Ukraine are in NATO – and Ukraine is inflicting the biggest defeat of Russia since the Japanese in 1905.

Apart from the US and Canada, which must also pay attention to Chinese ambitions in the Pacific, all these states see resisting Russian aggression as their main defence policy task. 

This will remain the case until the Russian state comes to understand that its purpose should be to improve the lives of Russian people, and that this is hindered, not helped, by paranoid militarism. Yet that process won’t even begin until Putin leaves office, and could well be reversed, even if he’s followed by a liberalising successor. Both Tsar Alexander II’s and Boris Yeltsin’s openings were overturned.  

These first-line states, of which the UK, Poland and Ukraine are the main military powers, can expect to maintain decades of containment of Moscow. As well as strengthening their own cooperation, they need to keep the rest of the Western alliance involved. 

Even setting aside the risk of a second Trump administration, a United States that returns to isolationism, or is simply focused on China, would be unable to help mount a defence against Russian aggression in the way it has this time. Continental European powers such as France and Germany under less immediate threat to Russia need to be persuaded who their real friends are.

The German government is divided. While Annalena Baerbock, its Foreign Minister, has been steadfast in her support for Ukraine, Olaf Scholz appears to lack the courage of his convictions, and needs continually to be pushed to live up to the Zeitenwende he announced immediately after Russia invaded.

And as Emmanuel’s Macron’s speech on Monday showed, France still struggles to shrug off its reflex of seeking somehow to involve Russia in contributing to security in Europe. This thinking has long been obsolete: a democratic Germany inside the EU has long made a Russian balance to Prussia unnecessary, and Poland’s integration into the West made it unsustainable.

But winning the political battles in France and Germany (and maintaining Mario Draghi’s new pro-Ukrainian consensus in Italy) will take more concerted diplomatic effort. It’s been entertaining to watch the friendly rivalry by former European schoolmates as they compete for visits to Kyiv and videotaped addresses by Volodomyr Zelensky. Whether they are Anglo-Swedish NLAWs (anti-tank weapons), US Javelins, German Panzerfausts or French CAESAR howitzers, all contribute to Ukraine’s fight for freedom. This is not a race, but a collective effort in which all democracies should take part.  

Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO, accompanied by British security guarantees for both countries until the NATO accession process is complete, is one such initiative. Denmark joining the EU’s defence policy (it currently has an opt out: a referendum is due on 1 June, and ‘join’ has a 20 point lead) is another.  The requirement is not necessarily unity of institutions, but unity of action, which must be pursued through NATO, EU initiatives and the British-led Joint Expeditionary force. 

Next winter, when inflation and high energy prices are due to bite, will prove critical. Russia will put every ounce of its political manipulation effort into splitting Germany, France and Italy from the front line states. It is an essential British interest that these efforts fail. 

Lasting peace in Europe will only come once Russia, like Germany has, abandons imperialist ambitions, reforms its militaristic culture, and retreats from all territory in other states that it has occupied. Putin’s defeat won’t be enough on its own to trigger the introspection and reconstruction that Russia needs. But it is a necessary step, and his inability to enforce Moscow’s ban on Finnish and Swedish NATO membership is evidence that he is starting to lose. 

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

5 May

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.

Knowing me, knowing Manu. Macron is no De Gaulle, and the Fifth Republic is weary.

26 Apr

At Waterloo, so it was sung, Napoleon did surrender. Well, the history book on the shelf may be repeating itself, but it is doing so in a slightly different way. On one side of the Channel, Boris Johnson faces a potential fine for allegedly attending an ‘Abba party’ in Number 10, taking one step closer to resignation and exile (although one imagines the Opinion section of The Daily Telegraph will prove a little more hospitable than St. Helena). Yet, on the other, Emmanuel Macron finds himself at his moment of Wellingtonian triumph – vanquishing Marine Le Pen by a 17 per cent margin and securing re-election as the President of France.

Knowing me, and knowing you, my fellow ConHomers, I’m sure we are all quietly relieved that Macron secured re-election. Although Manu may possess all the worst excesses of Gallic hauteur and arrogance, his support for both various measures of economic liberalisation domestically and for France’s place in the Western Alliance makes him more attractive than Le Pen. She has the virtues of terrifying all the right people and disliking the EU. But her party’s agenda resembles that of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party (if a little less anti-Semitic, following Le Pen’s efforts at detoxification) and one wouldn’t want NATO further undermined by her hostility.

Nevertheless, that she managed to poll over 40 percent of the vote in the second round is still something of an S.O.S from the Fifth Republic. Two decades ago, when her father Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly reached the run-off of the 2002 election, he managed only 17.8 per cent. Socialists trekked to the polling station with clothes pegs on their noses to show their disgust at having to back Jacques Chirac. And yet they did so, to protect their precious Republic against a man with a long history of Holocaust denial.

Two decades on, and the political system is utterly transformed. Not only has Le Pen attracted record levels of support for a candidate of the far-right, but the great centre-right and centre-left blocs which have long dominated French politics appear to be no more. In the first round, the traditional parties of left and right achieved only a paltry 6.52 percent of the vote between them. Instead, politics is straddled between Macron’s shape-shifting liberalism, Le Pen’s economic and social nationalism, and the Gallic Corbynism of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. That suggests an electorate characterised by disillusion – and where the name of the game is political chaos.

In the French system, the winner very much does not take it all. In order to retain his majority in the National Assembly, Macron will have to repeat his success in the two rounds of legislative elections in June. Since his party En Marche only managed 5.4 percent of the vote in last year’s regional elections, that seems something of an uphill task. As John Lichfield and John Keiger highlighted yesterday, Macron, Mélenchon, and Le Pen’s far-right rival Eric Zemmour will all be battling it out to transform the thirds of the vote going to the centre, left, and right respectively into as many seats as possible. It is a recipe for parliamentary disorder, and co-habitation: a President forced to work, as Mitterrand and Chirac were, with a National Assembly of a different political persuasion.

For all his current travails, Johnson does still have a majority of over 70. He does not have to win the agreement of Jeremy Corbyn or Nigel Farage to pass legislation. Were Macron to face a hostile legislature, his plans for reforming France would be under attack, and likely dead. That’s before they even face the forms of street opposition of which the French are so fond, and which sent his efforts at raising fuel taxes the way of the Dodo via the Gilet Jaunes. Fortunately, De Gaulle ensured the French President had sweeping powers over foreign policy. And yet that is where Macron has faced humiliation with both French post-colonial interventions in the Sahel, and over his attempts to reason with Putin.

So Macron’s current triumph will not prevent his authority from slipping through his fingers. De Gaulle, Louis XIV, Napoleons I and III – great statesman and heroes of France, who all possessed a grandeur that Macron will never match (despite his apparent aspirations towards God-hood). But it could be said that la petite Emmanuel is the first President since De Gaulle to have “a certain idea of France”. In Macron’s case, that is of a France at the heart of Europe, pushing forward integration, leading on defence, and proving how unnecessary ties to the Anglo-Saxon world are. He may disagree with the General over the merits of integration, but they possess the same goal of France as Europe’s greatest power.

With Angela Merkel replaced by a non-entity in Olaf Scholz, and with Germany preoccupied by its simultaneous dependency on Russia and aversion to military assistance to Ukraine, the moment is certainly ripe for French leadership. As Macmillan said of de Gaulle: “He speaks “Europe”, but means “France”.” But Macron is hampered by an electorate whose views on the bloc are opposed to his. It is a fascinating aspect of these elections that Le Pen outpolled Macron amongst the young, whereas Macron was re-elected on the backs of the over 65s. With National Rally most popular amongst the 25-34s, and Mélenchon most popular amongst 18-24s, young voters are going head over heels for Euroscepticism.

Since Macron cannot run again for the Presidency in 2027, the speculation begins now as to whether his successor will be another centrist pilfered from the old left or right, or a populist of right or left hue. Will Marine Le Pen run for a fourth time? Perhaps unlikely, as is a return for Mélenchon. There is a lot of talk about Marion Maréchal, Le Pen’s niece, who backed Zemmour. I have met her, and certainly considered her to be more like one of us when it comes to Euroscepticism and market liberalism than her Aunt. But with 58 percent of French voters backing a proposal last year to have army officers intervene to take over the country’s government, one must ask a more existential question. How much further has the Fifth Republic got to run?

It was born, in 1958, out of the crisis over the Algerian War and the threat of a military coup. It was designed by and around De Gaulle, with a powerful Presidency and weak legislature. Yet all French Presidents since the General have sat within a depressing continuum of bumbling technocrats, repellent politicos, ludicrous fantasists, and shameless philanderers. Our Prime Ministers, with all their faults, don’t tend to amount to all of those at once. Plus, for longer than the Fifth Republic has lasted, we have been blessed by a head of state who could no be described as any.

When all is said and done, it perhaps would have been better for France had Anthony Eden accepted the offer of Guy Mollet, his French equivalent, during the Suez Crisis for a Franco-British Union under the Queen. Mollet may be more famous for a different European union, but that would undoubtedly be the superior alliance. We would never have lost a World Cup again, and the steak and chips would be magnificent. And our neighbours across the Channel might have been spared another President dashed upon the rocks of both his own arrogance, and the wonderfully French refusal to be reasonable.

Welby, small boats and asylum. What’s his alternative?

18 Apr

Let’s start by agreeing that both the gangmaster trade in people trafficking – which makes a mockery of those refugees seeking legal asylum routes – and the deportation of trafficked people to Rwanda are undesirable.

The question that follows is whether the first can be stopped without resort to the second (or a policy very like it).  So move on to mull the only alternative for control on offer that I know of.

Which would be to allow asylum applications from abroad: this is the “safe and legal” route of which we have all read during recent days.

It could be that instead of taking small boats to Britain, asylum seekers would queue up patiently in Paris, Bordeaux and Marseilles to apply for entry.

Which would mean presenting their papers to the authorities abroad rather than tearing them up before arrival here, as is often the case, in order to further their claims.

Some might do so but others wouldn’t: there is really no way of estimating the proportions.  But even were the majority to do so, the number of people seeking asylum in Britain and elsewhere isn’t a fixed number.

And there is no limit on the number of refugees that we and other countries are obliged to take, due to international agreements on refugees drawn up three quarters of a century ago.

In other words, the most likely consequence of such a policy would be higher refugee and migration numbers, as more people entered by both legal and illegal routes.

For once a new means of travel has been hit upon, people are willing to pay to use it, and their number is large, the only direction numbers are likely to go in is up.

So it is with the discovery that a rigid-hulled inflatable boat, dinghy or kayak can profitably be packed with people and sailed from the beaches of Normandy to the coastline of Kent.

A French government better disposed to ours than Emmanuel Macron’s could help reduce the numbers, but by how much, given the length of the coastline, is debatable

And remember: there is no good reason, were the Government to open up “safe and legal” routes from France, for it not to do so automatically for those applying from other countries.

Which suggests taking a much larger number of refugees than the combined total of up to three million Hong Kongers, 20,000 Syrians, and 20,000 or so Afghans that this pro-migration Government has committed to taking.

Plus, of course, Ukrainians.  There were 84 million refugees worldwide in 2020.  Obviously, that total, a larger one than the population of the UK, wouldn’t all want to come here were the prospect on offer.

But it is only a fraction of the total eligible to apply.  How many are the supporters of “safe and legal routes” willing to take, since given our international commitments there is no cap on numbers?

If it is now the teaching of the Church of England that Britain is morally obliged to take as many asylum seekers as wish to come here, Justin Welby should say so.

It just could be that the only alternative on offer is the Government’s Rwandan scheme, which itself is not unprecedented: consider the EU’s deal with Turkey over migration in 2016.

Unless, that is, the Archbishop would prefer Ministers collectively to shrug their shoulders and let the small boats cross – endangering their passengers, enriching criminals and making a mockery of law-abiding asylum seekers.

If so, the view of the Church would presumably be not only that we should take an unlimited number of asylum seekers, but that we should abandon all control of our borders while we’re at it.

A conventional take on the Rwanda policy is that Boris Johnson, down on his luck at the polls, has hit on the cynical wheeze of waging a culture war against migrants.

If so, dropping the annual limit on semi-skilled work permits; easing the salary threshold and allowing an unlimited number of foreign students can stay on for up to two years – all of which he has done – is an odd way of showing it.

As it happens, closing down openings for a British Marine Le Pen would strike me and perhaps others as no bad thing in itself.

For when mainstream parties don’t control migration, opportunities open up for extremist ones.  First past the post and the good sense of voters have kept them at bay.  The cost of living crisis presents them with new opportunities.

At any rate, the events of the last year suggest that the Prime Minister is a wobbly trolley rather than a focused strategist, at least as far as small boats are concerned.

I’ve watched the argument sway back and forth among Ministers, civil servants and SpAds as the small boat numbers climbed from 2,012 in 2020 to 23,000 by November last year.

Some have been unwilling to countenance the Rwanda policy because they don’t like it. And because they fear what must follow if the Government first talks big and then climbs down.

Namely, the mother of all ding-dongs with the courts, and perhaps with parts of the civil service too, followed by the revisiting of obligations from another age that leave us with no limit on numbers and which are decades out of date.

At any rate, the Government now seems to have made up its mind – due perhaps to the arrival of Steve Barclay et al – and now that it has made a decision it must see it through.

In the meantime, the opponents of the policy will warn of the coming of an anti-Christ: Johnson and all his works.  Some are bad faith actors, willing to abandon all control of our borders, but unwilling to say so.

More are good faith ones: believers in a policy of “safe and legal” routes which implies a larger number of asylum seekers than I believe most voters would be willing to take.

Even so, I would sympathise with Welby’s point of view were the small boats making the long journey to Britain from Gwadar in Pakistan or Bushehr in the Persian Gulf or Tartus on the Syrian coast.

But they are coming from France.  From France, for goodness sake – a neighbour that sees itself, not without reason, as the country that gifted civilisation to the world.

Does the Archbishop really think that France is a country from which asylum seekers are compelled to flee to these shores? If so, his sense of Christianity may trump that of his critics, but not his sense of proportion.

Anand Menon: Europe and the war. Will the unity engendered by Russia’s invasion last?

18 Apr

Anand Menon is Director of the UK in a Changing Europe.

‘Europe will be forged in crisis and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.’ If ever there were a moment to ponder the import of Jean Monnet’s words, it is now. The war in Ukraine has come as a shock to the system of a union that, for years, has failed to deliver when it comes to its security ambitions.

Unlike, say, the Eurozone or migration crises, events in Ukraine have not proven intrinsically divisive. In the face of the armed invasion of a neighbouring sovereign state by a country already recognised as a potential threat, and acting in lockstep with the United States, unity amongst member states has been (relatively) easy to maintain. If the Donald Trump presidency (and accompanying threats – at least according to John Bolton – to leave NATO) had illustrated the fragility of the NATO shield, Ukraine has rammed home its continued importance by underlining the reality of the Russian sword.

The shock delivered to the collective EU system seems to have spawned a realisation, going beyond the usual cheap talk, that its ‘geopolitical holiday’ is over. And not simply because of the conflict itself. More broadly, many of the other challenges the Union faces in its neighbourhood – in the Middle East, Africa, the Sahel, and the Balkans – will be exacerbated by the war. As the EU’s newly minted ‘Strategic Compass’ puts it, the EU is ‘surrounded by instability and conflicts’.

How has the EU responded?

At Versailles in March, EU leaders declared their intention to ensure the EU could ‘take more responsibility for its own security’. The Strategic Compass published ten days later declared that the ‘EU and its Member States must invest more in their security and defence to be a stronger political and security actor.’

And, crucially, member states seem intent on rising to the challenge. In a dramatic half hour on 27 February, Olaf Scholtz reversed decades of German strategic thinking. German defence spending will rise from 1.5 per cent in 2021 to two per cent; a 100-billion-euro fund will be created for the armed forces. Germany will become the world’s third biggest military spender.

Nor is Germany alone. Denmark and Poland have also announced increases in defence spending. The former has announced a referendum on its opt-out from EU security policies. Finland and Sweden are reconsidering the issue of NATO membership. And, in a stark break with past reticence, the EU itself pledged to provide Ukraine with €1 billion in military assistance.

There is of course a long way to go before rousing words are translated into meaningful action. Yet it does seem that one consequence of the current crisis will be significantly enhanced European military capabilities.

So far, so overdue. Europeans have been free riders on American power for far too long. However, capabilities are one thing. Deploying them is quite another. Taking greater responsibility for European security implies working collectively. Working collectively, in turn, requires consensus (because a genuine ‘European Army’ is not on the cards). Perhaps the biggest question emerging from the present crisis is whether the unity engendered by the Russian invasion will last.

While the EU has imposed five separate sanctions packages on Russia, the longer the conflict lasts, or the nastier it gets, the greater the pressure will be to extend these to cover oil and gas. Germany, Hungary, Italy and Bulgaria, however, are highly dependent on Russian gas exports, raising the prospect of bitter arguments to come.

Which raises the thornier question as to how member states might respond to Russian attempts to negotiate a settlement. Emmanuel Macron has maintained a dialogue with Vladimir Putin, despite the obvious irritation this caused among some of the former’s partners (‘nobody negotiated with Hitler’, as the Polish Prime Minister put it). A firm offer of de-escalation in return for concessions on sanctions might well exacerbate such tensions.

Then there is Ukraine itself. While many of the Central European and Baltic states favour a rapid path to EU membership, the French and Dutch have expressed reservations. The Versailles declaration was typically vague, promising support for Ukraine in ‘pursuing its European path’ whilst affirming (meaninglessly) that ‘Ukraine belongs to our European family’. Again, it is not hard to imagine the debate about the appropriate relationship with a post-war Ukraine becoming a running sore within the EU.

And of course such sores existed well before the current conflict. Internal disputes over the rule of law are now being viewed through the lens of events in Ukraine. The European Commission is preparing to release billions in recovery funds for Poland, which has been in the frontline of the refugee crisis. In contrast, two days after the re-election of Viktor Orbán (with his clear sympathies for Putin), the Commission announced plans to trigger a rule of law mechanism allowing it to deprive Hungary of millions of euros in scheduled payments.

It is too early to predict the possible medium-term consequences of all this. On the one hand, the crisis might prompt Poland to reconcile with the European Union. Or, it might encourage political leaders in Warsaw to believe they can act as they like at home as long as they keep in step with EU external policy. As for Hungary, with Orbán’s refusal to countenance weapons deliveries or sanctions on Russian gas exports already straining relations with other member states, it seems reasonable to assume that tensions between Budapest and Brussels will continue to bedevil the Union.

However endless the conflict in Ukraine may be coming to feel, we are still in its early phase. And this might be the easy phase as far as the EU is concerned. How long the war lasts, and the circumstances in which it ends will obviously help shape its longer-term consequences for the Union. It seems likely, though, that member states will emerge with enhanced military capabilities. Whether or not they agree on the foreign policy objectives to which these capabilities will contribute, however, is far from certain.

Why the hell, Le Pen asks, should French voters be less free than the British?

12 Apr

An unenviable choice faces French voters. On the one hand they could stick with Emmanuel Macron, who has strutted and fretted his hour upon the international stage, or at least has sat at the other end of an enormous marble table to Vladimir Putin.

Macron pretended, perhaps even to himself, that he could avert the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He couldn’t, and now hastens, before the final round of the presidential election on 24 April, to try to reconnect with a sufficient number of his compatriots by pretending that he cares about such mundane questions as the price of petrol.

When ConservativeHome profiled Macron, we noted that he

“is extraordinarily good at attracting attention to himself, and thus denying it to his opponents, who face an unenviable choice between being sane but invisible, or else insane but unelectable.”

Marine Le Pen, who in 2017 reached the final of the last presidential election but then lost to Macron by the decisive margin of 34 to 66 per cent, has this time sought with some success to be sane but electable.

When ConHome profiled Le Pen in 2015, it noted that she was trying to learn from the mistakes of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who in 2002 terrified the French establishment by reaching the second round of the presidential election, but who then lost by 18 per cent to 82 per cent to Jacques Chirac, because even the Left rallied round to stop Le Pen:

“most of her life has been devoted to her father’s movement, and in recent years to its ‘de-demonisation’: the striking of a more moderate tone, which makes it harder to write her and her followers off as a band of repellent racists.”

The younger Le Pen has striven with considerable success to seem unthreatening, and for a time, Macron underestimated her. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard observes in The Daily Telegraph:

“The Élysée has been strangely slow to see the danger of her pastoral style of campaigning, and her new, carefully cultivated image as the matron of the nation, photographed with her six cats (she has just got her breeding licence).”

Le Pen is closer to Putin than Macron. She is so disreputable, so hostile to immigrants, that Nigel Farage would have nothing to do with her.

She wants to leave to leave NATO, and to defy the European Union. It she were to win, she might shatter the so far for the most part united western response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

So all those of us who want to keep Putin under united western pressure will hope that the opinion polls putting Macron in the lead are correct.

But the result of the French presidential election is not up to us. It is up to the French, who face a question which occurs all over Europe.

What is the future of the nation state? Is it to throw in its lot with a supra-national body, the European Union, even at the expense of national freedom?

Brexit was often written about as if it was a question only for those strange, old-fashioned people the British. Modern nations like France and Germany could not be susceptible to such out-of-date feelings.

But voters in France and Germany do, as it turns out, still have nationalist emotions, and even think those emotions have much to do with freedom and democracy.

The chances are that Macron will once again finesse this problem, and will beat Le Pen. But that does not mean the problem will go away.

What is the place of the nation state within the European Union? The traditional, Napoleonic answer of the French elite was that France’s role was to run the EU.

That is the answer of Macron, the brightest living representative of that elite. But will the French workers and peasants allow him, as the polls at present suggest, to get away with it? Or will they dare, in their bloody-mindedness, to vote for Le Pen, and support her vulgar and illiberal proposals to give immigrants fewer liberties?

One hesitates to ask such a tactless question. The likelihood is still that a majority of French voters will decide Macron is the lesser of two evils.

But even if they do, the question posed by Le Pen will not go away. Why the hell, she demands, should French voters be less free than the British?