PARIS — What happens this week with Brexit — whether Britain crashes out of the European Union without a deal, or gets more time to sort out a smooth departure — may come down to French President Emmanuel Macron.
Macron has taken the hardest line among European leaders on Brexit. He presided over a compromise last month that gave Britain until April 12 to deliver a clear plan for Brexit or face leaving without a safety net. And when E.U. leaders gather Wednesday in Brussels to consider Prime Minister Theresa May’s request for a further delay, Macron is expected to be the loudest voice of resistance.
Any decision must be unanimous.
And so May devoted her final hours of lobbying on Tuesday to meet with Macron in Paris and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. May has asked for an extension until June 30, to allow for continued talks with the opposition Labour Party. The hope is that, together, May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn might be able to forge a compromise that could win support in the British Parliament, which has rejected May’s withdrawal deal three times. Those talks have yielded little so far.
The German media called May’s travel on Tuesday “the begging tour.”
Merkel has tended to be more charitable than Macron on Brexit, emphasizing that no one wants a no-deal departure, which could wreak economic havoc in Britain and on the continent.
A Downing Street spokesman said that in their Tuesday meeting, May and Merkel “agreed on the importance of ensuring Britain’s orderly withdrawal from the European Union.”
A Downing Street readout of the Macron meeting did not mention such agreement.
An extension is “neither agreed nor automatic,” French Secretary of State for European Affairs Amélie de Montchalin told reporters Tuesday on her way into a meeting of ministers. “It is extremely important that this request is accompanied by a credible political plan that explains what will happen during this requested extension.”
Few European policymakers or analysts expect an outright veto by Macron — that could isolate him on the European stage, where he has sought to become the dominant player.
But in Paris, Brussels and across Europe, there is an overwhelming sense that — nearly three years since Britain voted to leave — the E.U. must be more than a vehicle for endless Brexit summits.
“A summit is one day’s work lost — to do something completely idiotic,” said Francois Heisbourg, a former Macron adviser.
“France is not worried to be outspoken on this,” said Pierre Vimont, a former French ambassador to the E.U. “But the truth is that many other delegations are starting to have Brexit fatigue, and they all are starting to have domestic problems on the issue.”
Protecting the political stability of Europe will be the essence of France’s pitch at Wednesday’s summit, according to an Élysée official who briefed members of the media on the condition of anonymity.
“The E.U. must keep functioning, and any Brexit delay must preserve the functioning of the E.U.,” the official said.
Macron will seek to impose “strict conditions” on Britain during any extension, the official said, adding that the E.U. could reasonably demand periodic reviews to ensure that Britain was honoring its commitment “not to thwart E.U. decision-making.”
Much of the Elysée’s position seemed a response to threats of disruption by Brexiteers.
British lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg tweeted last week: “If a long extension leaves us stuck in the EU we should be as difficult as possible. We could veto any increase in the budget, obstruct the putative EU army and block Mr Macron’s integrationist schemes.”
The Elysée official said that a Brexit extension of one year, as some European leaders have been discussing, would be “too long.”
Some fear that a lengthy extension would take the pressure off Britain to agree to an exit plan.
Macron, though, has further concerns. He has cast himself and his party, La République En Marche, as the leading defenders of Europe against the nationalist and populist factions embodied by the likes of Marine Le Pen in France and Matteo Salvini in Italy. Allowing Brexit to drag on could lend credibility to the right-wing argument that E.U. bureaucrats have actively sought to undermine British sovereignty. It could also undermine the strength of repeated commitments to further continental integration.
European Council President Donald Tusk has proposed a “flextension” that would allow a Brexit delay of up to a year, with an option for Britain to leave sooner.
“Our experience so far, as well as the deep divisions within the House of Commons, give us little reason to believe that the ratification process can be completed by the end of June,” Tusk wrote to E.U. leaders on Tuesday.
“Importantly, a long extension would provide more certainty and predictability by removing the threat of constantly shifting cliff-edge dates,” he argued.
In the letter, Tusk suggested a number of stipulations to address concerns expressed by France and others: “no re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement; no start of the negotiations on the future, except for the Political Declaration; the UK would have to maintain its sincere cooperation also during this crucial period, in a manner that reflects its situation as a departing member state.”
Germany is no less concerned about potential disruption, said Josef Janning, the co-head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Wanting to leave but still in as a spoiler is, in the Berlin view, nearly as terrible as a no-deal Brexit,” Janning said.
He suggested that the differences between Merkel and Macron may be more tactical than substantive. “There may be a bit of good-guy, bad-guy approach in this,” he said. “Macron sees his role as someone who has to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ Merkel’s approach is not to move things through threats.”
For both Macron and Merkel, the aim is to get Britain out as expeditiously and painlessly as possible.
“If this drags on, it’s a distraction for the European Union when there are so many other things to focus on,” said Benjamin Haddad, a French political scientist and head of the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative. “It also created a lot of resentment, and it will create more. That’s really what everyone, starting with the French, want to avoid.”
Birnbaum reported from Brussels. William Booth in London and Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.