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A Strange Double-Act

If Macron is Europe’s savior, does that make him Britain’s nightmare?
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Despite his criticisms of her leadership decisions, British Prime Minister Theresa May invited upstart French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron for an official meeting in London. Did she choose the right presidential hopeful?

© REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Standing outside 10 Downing Street on Tuesday, Emmanuel Macron, the brash and youthful French presidential candidate who seemed to come from nowhere and is now soaring in the polls, didn’t sound like someone who had just been granted a favor.

In an unusual move, British Prime Minister Theresa May had extended Macron an invitation to visit her at her official residence. Ordinarily sitting political leaders don’t want to risk appearing as if they’re taking sides in a foreign country’s elections, for fear of angering an opponent who may turn out to be the future leader of that country. Angela Merkel rebuffed a request from Macron to meet with her while he was visiting Berlin last month, for example (although earlier, she did make time for conservative candidate François Fillon).

In Britain, such meetings are not unprecedented, however. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair met with French presidential contender – and eventual winner – Nicolas Sarkozy during his campaign in 2007. But Tuesday’s meeting still came as a surprise: while Sarkozy spoke highly of Blair during the 2007 campaign, Macron’s descriptions of May have been far from flattering.

Macron has made a full-throated defense of the European Union a central plank of his campaign. He has cast himself as the defender of Europe against the forces of populist nationalism that are now surrounding it. He has alluded to those adversarial forces now in power in three countries: Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

 “Vassal State”

Macron’s criticisms of newly-inaugurated US President Donald Trump have been brutal. He has attacked Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban” and his quixotic push to build a wall alonh the US-Mexico border, saying “no ban, no wall.” He baited Trump with a tweet inviting all “Americans who fight for innovation and excellence” to flee the US and come to France. And he has promised a France that will stand up to Trump.

“What’s happening today with Trump’s first statements and decisions is extremely serious and worrying,” he said in late January. “It’s firstly a choice that it will be an America that provokes…an America that destabilizes things that have been built for decades. It signifies that the US will no longer be in a position to co-organize globalization and be the world’s policeman with the European Union.”

So when May decided to become Trump’s first official visitor, effectively casting the UK’s lot in with Trump’s America, Macron was not impressed, telling France Culture radio: “Britain lived in an equilibrium with Europe, but now it is becoming a vassal state, meaning it is becoming the junior partner of the United States.”

Why Macron?

May decided to invite him regardless. But if she thought this gesture of goodwill would soften Macron’s criticisms of her plan for “hard Brexit“ – a complete separation of the UK from the EU – it appears she was mistaken.

“Brexit cannot lead to a kind of optimization of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe. An exit is an exit,” he told reporters outside 10 Downing Street after the meeting. “I am very determined that there will be no undue advantages.”

He later told a campaign rally in London, in an arena awash with EU flags, that there can be no bilateral talks between France and the UK on the subject of Brexit, only between the UK and the EU. It was a message of solidarity: the EU is indivisible and Macron will not let the UK play countries against one another. He pointedly told the crowd, largely made up of French expatriates living in London, that no EU member state can succeed without Europe.

It wasn’t the politest behavior for a guest to display to his host, to say the least. But May couldn’t have expected anything different. Being tough on Brexit is a large part of Macron’s appeal for French voters.

So why did May invite Macron, a centrist independent, rather than his center-right challenger Fillon? It seems an odd choice for a prime minister who is herself center-right.

It may be that May is counting out Fillon, who has been flagging in the polls following revelations that he gave his wife what looks like a fake parliamentary job, paid for with public funds. The invitation could signal that she views Macron as the only candidate who can beat far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election, to be held in two months’ time over two rounds.

May’s office reiterated her position yesterday that she will not meet with Le Pen before the election. But this, too, is an odd choice, considering Le Pen may offer one of the few avenues for a successful Brexit.

A Silent May-Le Pen Alliance?

Le Pen has cheered the result of Britain’s June 23 referendum to leave the EU and said the exercise should be replicated in France if she is elected president. She has also said that Brexit signals the end of the European Union and called it “the biggest thing in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

May, meanwhile, has been at pains in her public appearances, and her meetings with EU partners, to say that Britain does not want the EU to break apart. But her plan for hard Brexit has left the UK with few options, and it is self-evident that a strong EU means less options for Britain.

Were Le Pen to win the French election, however, it would very likely lead to the EU’s break-up. Suddenly everyone would be in May’s boat. Rather than being isolated on her own, negotiating with a power several times the size of her country, May would be participating in a multilateral dismantling of the EU with 27 partners in the same position.

Such an exercise would be lengthy and complicated, to be sure. But everyone would be going through it together. Whether May will publicly admit it or not, a Le Pen win is the best possible outcome for her political future. And, if Brexit is unavoidable (many still believe it is not), it could be the best outcome for Brexit Britain – even if it would be a disaster for Europe.