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Macron cast as Brexit tough guy as deadline nears

Toby Melville, Reuters | French President Emmanuel Macron arrives for a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium, on March 21, 2019.

French President Emmanuel Macron is again being cast as a hardliner in Brexit negotiations as he piles pressure on British lawmakers to approve a Brexit deal negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May.

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The 41-year-old leader has ruled out a long extension to the deadline for Brexit of March 29 and has signalled he is prepared to see Britain crash out of the European bloc without a deal in place.

He again urged British MPs on Thursday to approve the Brexit agreement negotiated between May and the remaining 27 members of the EU, which they have twice rejected.

Another vote is expected next week.

"In the case of a negative British vote then we'd be heading to a no deal. We all know it. And it's essential to be clear in these days and moments," Macron said as he arrived for an EU summit in Brussels.

In Britain's rightwing press, Macron has often been portrayed as leading efforts to toughen negotiations with London, fitting a pattern of historic rivalry between the two neighbours. In an editorial on Thursday, Britain's Daily Telegraph saw a certain "symmetry" in how France was seeking to "speed us on our way" toward the EU's exit.

It recalled how Charles de Gaulle famously prevented Britain joining the EU in 1963 and 1967 -- seen as acts of supreme betrayal in London after Britain helped liberate France during World War II.

But some analysts and diplomats say Macron's rhetoric is simply a more direct way of saying what other leaders are expressing more quietly.

"We've often had discussions about tactics between the 27 (remaining members of the EU), but no real division on the fundamentals," a senior European official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Francois Heisbourg, a former French diplomat and advisor at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that in the current debate about whether Britain should get an extension to its Brexit deadline, he hadn't "found anyone who has a softer line."

"The French just state their stuff, they lay it out, it's their Cartesian approach," Heisbourg explained.

Brexit 'liars'

Macron has frequently laid out his thinking on Brexit in brutal terms, once calling the campaigners for Britain's exit "liars" and most recently "anger-mongers, backed by fake news."

These strident statements can be explained in part by domestic political calculations, but also by his vision for the EU's future.

The centrist came to power promising to deepen the European project by encouraging member states to go further in linking their economies, political systems and armed forces -- the exact opposite of Brexit.

And France's eurosceptics, led by far-right leader Marine Le Pen, are his biggest political opponents ahead of elections for the European Parliament at the end of May.

"France's position is to dissuade any other country from trying to leave the Union," said Jean-Marc Huissoud, a professor in international relations at the Grenoble School of Management in France.

Macron's vision of deeper European integration has also been a collateral victim of the protracted Brexit negotiations, which have diverted away energy and attention.

"He wants to end the uncertainty as quickly as possible, like everybody else in the EU," Heisbourg said. "By ending the uncertainty you create more time to do other stuff."

Brinkmanship?

But though Macron is increasingly exasperated by the Brexit logjam, some diplomats believe he will think twice before forcing a "no deal" by blocking any extension for Britain.

The German think-tank Bertelsmann Foundation released a report on Thursday showing that after Germany, France would be the second most affected member of the EU from a "no deal" Brexit, which is expected to cause havoc for trade, transport and cross-border investment.

The cost would be 7.73 billion euros ($8.8 billion) per year, the study said, with the biggest hit for northern France.

French fishermen, who currently work in British waters, would be barred from English seas, while a whole range of businesses could see exports and imports to and from Britain disrupted, perhaps permanently.

"The French are hard on the principles, but in reality it's another question," the senior European official told AFP in Brussels.

Another European diplomat, who requested anonymity as well, also questioned whether Macron would be prepared to force a "no deal" when "yellow vest" anti-government protesters are still on the streets in France.

"The French seem to be tougher at the moment. But when their fishing fleets cannot go out to sea anymore, and these people are on unemployment benefits and standing on the street right next to the yellow vests, what do you do then?" the diplomat said.

(AFP)

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