The French President’s letter is neither olive branch nor gauntlet. He is urging us all to save the European projectby Stephen Wall / March 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
To British commentators, rocking backwards and forwards in the Bedlam that is Brexit, Macron’s letter to Europe is one more example of the French passion for centralisation: top down, Napoleonic un-pragmatic. If it is, as one of my French friends described it, “a love letter to the British,” then it seems to have got lost in translation. Thanks to 1,000 years of history, gifts from France are viewed with instinctive suspicion. Not for nothing did Shakespeare have the French king send to the young Henry V balls (tennis balls in fact) instead of gold.
There is plenty of room for argument about Macron’s particular ideas but they are just that: ideas, proposals even, but certainly not prescriptions. At heart he is arguing that populism is a threat to representative democracy; that there is an existential threat to Europe from uncontrolled refugee migration—and that Schengen as it stands does not work; that there is a concerted attempt by Russia to attack our democracies by stealth; that, individually, all European governments are failing to meet the expectations of their citizens in terms of basic rights to welfare and security; that, especially in a Trumpian world, Europe should do more for its own defence.
None of that strikes me as misguided and the attacks on Macron for refusing to gloss over the stark realities of modern Europe have about as much credibility as those that were made on Churchill for his warnings in the 1930s.
In 1946, Churchill, in a great speech in Zurich, proposed a United States of Europe: a new order based on Franco-German reconciliation and leadership. Britain would, in his conception, be with it rather than of it. But his idea: that two countries which had fought each other in 1870, and twice in the 20th century, had to come together to prevent yet another conflict was a founding idea behind what became the European Union. It critically depended on Franco-German leadership, which was one reason why the British found it hard to come to terms with. That leadership lasted until the reunification of Germany, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the pre-eminence of Germany economically. Before then, Germany and France had led Europe by example: planting bold flags of political initiative which others were then challenged to follow. European union was, for Germany, the framework in which a united Germany would be seen as a partner, not a threat. A Germany bound into western Europe would not be tempted into a dangerous neutrality or to see its interests as lying further to the east.
Germany’s commitment to western Europe remains but her economic interests are now more globally focussed and, with the North stream project, and its accompanying energy dependence on Russia, Germany has bet on a quasi-institutional partnership with a country whose policies and motives are profoundly disturbing to many of us. Macron has been keen to foster the Franco-German relationship but the two leaders do not see entirely eye to eye and his letter is recognition that the post-war world of Franco-German leadership has changed significantly. He sees the need for a new balance, in which Britain has a significant role to play. The last time a French President made such a proposition, as President de Gaulle did in 1969, the British regarded it as a trap and dismissed it out of hand. Caution is always a necessary part of international diplomacy. But careless dismissal should not be.
Long gone are the days when Britain, if it ever did, could hope to save Europe by her example. But Europe does need to be saved by the exertion of all of us who have lived in peace for 70 years, because of Churchill’s vision of a democratic Europe made real through the European project. Our leaving the European Union does not make it any less necessary to play a part in safeguarding the principles and policies on which we in Britain have depended as much as our neighbours. Macron’s letter is neither olive branch nor gauntlet. It is an invitation to re-imagine how the Europe of which we are all part can be made to work.
Stephen Wall was British Ambassador to the European Union and is author of The Official History of Britain and the European Community, Volume III: The Tiger Unleashed, 1975-1985