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Brussels relieved, London anxious after France elects pro-EU Macron amid Brexit battle

Stringer, AFP | Members of civic organization Avaaz with their faces painted in the French and EU flags kiss as they gather with other supporters of French President-elect Emmanuel Macron as they celebrate at the Louvre Museum in Paris on May 7, 2017.

Brussels exhaled a sigh of relief on Sunday with France’s election of Emmanuel Macron, a Europhile poised to breathe new life into Europe and its Franco-German tandem. But with a Brexit battle looming, London is still holding its breath.


In the first hours after his election on Sunday, Macron made clear that France had just elected a heart-on-his-sleeve Europhile. “I will work to mend the ties between Europe and its citizens,” the new president-elect pledged in a speech broadcast nationwide from his campaign headquarters. Later at the Louvre, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, the European Union’s anthem, accompanied Macron’s long walk to the stage to address supporters waving blue and yellow EU flags alongside the French tricolour.

Brussels basked in France’s resounding choice of a pro-EU leader and its massive rejection of Eurosceptic populist spitfire (and European Parliament member) Marine Le Pen. “Happy that the French chose a European future,” EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker tweeted. “We have received a vote of confidence from France in the European Union,” EU Parliament chief Antonio Tajani told Agence France-Presse.

Elsewhere in Europe, political leaders of various stripes were keen to emphasise that aspect of Macron’s win. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman was quick off the mark to congratulate Macron, adding, “Your victory is a victory for a strong and united Europe and for French-German friendship.”

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, a Social Democrat, called the win a “victory for the French people and for European cooperation”. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, a conservative, tweeted his congratulations, adding, “Let us work in France and Spain for a stable, prosperous and more integrated Europe.” In Greece, leftist PM Alexis Tsipras called Macron’s victory “an inspiration for France and for Europe”.

Across the Channel, British Prime Minister Theresa May, leading her own election campaign, “warmly” congratulated Macron. Brexit was already on May’s lips as the pair spoke Sunday night. “The leaders briefly discussed Brexit and the prime minister reiterated that the UK wants a strong partnership with a secure and prosperous EU once we leave,” May’s spokesman said.

But in remarks to Conservative Party supporters on Monday, May seemed less sanguine, more defensive. “Yesterday, a new French president was elected. He was elected with a strong mandate, which he can take… as a strong position in the negotiations,” she told them. “The UK -- we need to ensure that we have got an equally strong mandate and an equally strong negotiating position.”

Macron has in the past deemed Brexit a “crime”. He has also pledged to renegotiate the Le Touquet border treaty that places British border controls on French soil. And the onetime investment banker, during a campaign visit to London where he met May, made a play for entrepreneurial French expats in London to return home to France.

“France can… hardly have picked a better ambassador than a former banker who built a political movement like a startup to woo back its expat population or tempt some of London’s finance and tech talent to Paris,” Politico Brussels watcher Ryan Heath noted this week.

Indeed, The London Evening Standard -- now edited by George Osborne, David Cameron’s former Chancellor of the Exchequer before the Brexit referendum -- ran “Macron targets City of London” on its post-election front page on Monday. “He will target City jobs. Whether we let them go is up to us”, Osborne tweeted.

Pro-Brexit newspapers in the UK, meanwhile, met Macron’s visit with foreboding of their own. The Daily Telegraph’s front page fretted with “France’s new hope puts cloud over Brexit.” The Daily Mirror offered “Why the new French leader could be bad for Brexit deal” while The Sun, another tabloid Brexit-booster, met the news with silence on its front page, featuring Prince Harry kissing his girlfriend instead; the paper’s quiet reception of Macron’s election was a pointed contrast to its treatment of Le Pen’s advance to the run-off on April 23 (“New French Revolution”, “Now voters will have say on Frexit”).

Some British Leave advocates were less diplomatic than the tabloids. Leave.EU left aside pondering Macron’s role in Brexit negotiations to instead tweet “RIP France” and “The French rolled over in 1940. This time they’ve saved Germany the fuel and bullets.”

But Macron’s approaching election has had British media exhuming his old quotes to divine the independent centrist’s negotiating zeal now that Britain has set the countdown to Brexit in motion with Article 50.

Days before Britain’s June 2016 referendum, for one, Macron had told Le Monde that “leaving the EU would mean the ‘Guernseyfication’ of the UK, which would then be a little country on the world scale. It would isolate itself and become a trading post and arbitration place at Europe’s border”.

In a Monocle interview earlier this year, Macron didn’t cast Britain’s negotiating hand as a strong one. “We have to accept that there are losses [from Brexit]. But it’s the British who will lose the most. You cannot enjoy rights in Europe if you are not a member,” he said. “The British are making a serious mistake over the long term…. What has been happening since [Brexit]? On the geopolitical level as well as on the financial – realignment and submission to the US. What is going to happen is not ‘taking back control’: it’s servitude.”

In a BBC interview on Monday, Macron’s chief economic advisor Jean Pisani-Ferry gave some insight, but perhaps not in terms unambivalent enough to soothe anxieties. “I don’t think anybody has an interest in a hard Brexit,” Pisani-Ferry said. “There is mutual interest in keeping prosperity that exists and has built up over the years… and obviously the security and defence relationship, which is extremely important.”

Pisani-Ferry said Macron would not seek to “punish” Britain but “he believes that even today Europe is part of the solution to the problems we are facing”. The advisor said, “We have divergent interests on some aspects of the negotiations, so there will be tough negotiation and [Macron] will be tough.” But Pisani-Ferry struck a conciliatory tone when he added, “As grown-ups on both sides, we can manage to settle the exit negotiation and to build up a relationship.”

Meanwhile, some observers noted that Macron’s Brexit stance represents continuity relative to outgoing Socialist President François Hollande and therefore shouldn’t spur alarm. And while the most hardline Leavers made no secret of their preference on Sunday for Macron’s Frexit-friendly opponent, some analysts argue that a Le Pen win would likely have compromised Brexit talks, not facilitated them.

“If Le Pen had won yesterday, on a mandate to lead France out of the Eurozone and the EU, the EU would have been faced with a much larger and more pressing crisis than Brexit,” wrote Aarti Shankar, a policy analyst at London-based think tank Open Europe, on Monday. “With Macron leading France, the EU can breathe a big sigh of relief – its second largest economy is now led by a staunchly pro-EU president who already echoes key EU messages on Brexit. Undoubtedly, a self-confident, unified EU is more likely to deliver a promising Brexit deal than one dogged by its own existential crisis.”

The Sun, for its part, seemed to find a sort of solace of its own in remarks by Macron’s wife, Brigitte. “We both absolutely love Britain and make sure we visit every year – this won’t change,” France’s next première dame said in remarks unearthed by the tabloid. “We go to plays in London, but Emmanuel and I are great strollers, too. We love to go on long walks through the city, and to speak to people. We love walking.”

What is clear today is that British eyes will be on Macron, whether he is en marche through London, or on to Brussels.

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