As Britain’s government gets down to brass tacks in its EU renegotiation, the noises coming from the French government have been mixed. The UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has a major meeting with President Francois Hollande this week. The WSJ reports on the run-up, which has included meetings with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron:
President François Hollande’s Socialist government has so far been resistant to any attempt to change the treaties that govern the union, which may be required to meet the U.K.’s demands. Mr. Fabius had in May likened Britain’s desire to renegotiate its relationship with the EU as joining a soccer club and deciding “in the middle of the match we are now going to play rugby.”Yet Mr. Macron struck a warmer tone at a news conference with Mr. Osborne Monday, saying that although Paris is still unwilling to agree to treaty changes it is open to EU reform […]After dining together in Paris Sunday evening, Mr. Macron and Mr. Osborne both spoke of the possibility of a “win-win” deal on Monday.“It’s very encouraging to hear Mr. Macron talk about a win-win, which I think we can deliver,” Mr. Osborne said.
So, does France want the UK to stay in the EU? It’s an interesting question. On the one hand, on almost every economic question, the French and British disagree. The British want a freer market and a free-wheeling euro; the French want to regulate everything they can catch and they see the EU in part as a way to rebuild on a Continental scale a regulated, blue-model economy that doesn’t work anymore at the national level. On the other hand, does France really want to be left alone inside the EU with a much stronger and politically surer Germany?If Macron’s apparently friendlier tone is genuine, that may change things. But the French, judging by the quote about the rugby team, seem to be leaning toward pushing the UK toward the exit by blocking the kinds of reforms the country seeks. Hollande’s recent call for a political union of the eurozone countries (echoed this morning by Italy) may be a clue to French thinking. According to the WSJ, Macron indicated that EU reforms sought by the UK could be linked to to this proposal for union. But without the UK or Poland, Denmark, and Sweden in the eurozone, France may also think it has a better hope of forming a coalition with Italy, Portugal, and Spain that can check Germany where it counts. If that happens, France wouldn’t have much need to keep the UK in the EU—the important decisions would be taken inside the eurozone where France could usually round up a majority of likeminded states.Either way, getting a French stamp of approval on their reform proposals is the biggest hurdle the British face in their efforts to make a more comfortable home for themselves inside the EU.