Imagine if David Cameron, at the height of the riots in August 2011, had abandoned London to embark on a speaking tour of foreign capitals to lecture the rest of the world on how European civilisation could help save the rest of the world from ‘chaos’. You now have an idea of what it must be like to French this week. Over the past week, protests against fuel taxes have erupted into violence across France, blocking autoroutes and leading to at least two deaths and 600 injuries. But where was the French president to be seen during all of this? He flew off to Berlin to commemorate Germany’s war dead, plugging his idea for a European army and telling German MPs ‘Europe and, within it, the Franco-German couple have the obligation not to let the world slip into chaos and to guide it on the road to peace.’
Even Marie Antoinette had a greater connection with her people. If you want to sell your services as a global peacemaker it would pay to wait until the flames of protest in your own country had died down first.
But it is Macron’s contribution to the weekend summit on the Brexit deal which may turn out to have the more serious repercussions. Theresa May always was going to have an uphill – maybe impossible – task convincing MPs to approve the Brexit deal when it comes before the House of Commons in December. Her only hope, really, was to convince her MPs that the EU is serious when it says that no-one wants to use the ‘backstop’ – the mechanism by which the UK would be kept in a customs territory with the EU (subject to EU-made rules while having no say in them) in the absence of a trade deal which ensured no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
Yet no sooner had May embarked on her mission to persuade us that the backstop was just some theoretical construct which no-one would ever enact in practice, than Macron made it plain that he really does want to use the backstop. Britain should be forced into it, he now tells us, if we refuse access to French fishermen in UK waters.
By doing so, Macron has confirmed what Tory Brexiteers have been saying for the past fortnight, elucidating swift rebuttals from Number 10: that the backstop is a device dreamed up by the EU to cling onto Britain by the short and curlies. It can and will be used by the EU at every opportunity in order to disadvantage Britain.
In one sense Macron has done Britain a big favour – he has exposed the EU plot for what it is. Not even May’s charm offensive is going to keep her Scottish MPs happy – they who owe their careers at Westminster to promises to support the fishing industry. They can see full well that the EU is going to try to do all it can to ensure that Britain’s waters remain open to EU boats.
If Mrs May’s Brexit deal – and her political career – were not already doomed, President Macron has made it certain. Other EU leaders who hoped to slip their handcuffs on Britain without us really noticing what they were up to might have reason to blame the French leader.