French President’s remarks on Brexit at EU talks

Brexit – Press conference given by M. Emmanuel Macron, President of the Republic, following the European Council (excerpts)

Paris, 22 March 2019

Q. – As regards how Brexit is turning out, do you think the most likely thing is that Britain can adopt an alternative plan, given that you reportedly said during the discussions that a vote [in favour of the withdrawal agreement] seems to you to have only a 5% chance. Apparently Britain has planned to present seven alternative proposals in indicative votes. Is that the scenario that seems to you to be emerging?

THE PRESIDENT – I won’t make any bets on what’s going to happen in Britain. I don’t think anyone would have bet – even the day before – that a piece of jurisprudence from the beginning of the 17th century would be rediscovered to justify such an unexpected postponement of the vote, or rather the impossibility of the vote. There’s a deadline coming up to which Prime Minister May has committed herself. It’s a third vote on the agreement which was negotiated for two years between the British government and the 27 [other] European Union members. That’s the commitment made, that’s what is owed to us, and I think that’s mutual respect. I can’t tell the result of that agreement. Prime Minister May told us, at any rate, that for that purpose she needed us, on the one hand, to give her an extra implementation period if there was a vote in favour, which we’ve done – [until] 22 May – and on the other hand she very clearly, shall I say, included the fact that it was the only chance of implementing what she’d negotiated for so many months. And, at her request, we formally confirmed the so-called Strasbourg agreement between Prime Minister May and President Juncker. And so legally it was recognized in the framework of our conclusions, and so those really are things that allow us to say: here you are, everything’s on the table. Then, if such a vote isn’t held or isn’t in favour, it’s up to both the Prime Minister and MPs to propose other options. We saw amendments that were rejected by a small margin which proposed that Parliament take control of the negotiations, and indeed there were then several options, on the future relationship, but they didn’t give rise to a majority. So I can’t say, for my part, what positive majority will emerge on which option. I’ve had the opportunity to say several times that the response on this issue is up to Britain, and we don’t want to get into speculation on that point. Either there’s an agreement next week – and we’ve given until 22 May for implementation – or there’s no agreement and nothing else, and that will automatically lead us, from 12 April onwards, to believe we’re heading for a no deal – we’ll have to go along with that – or other proposals are made, but I’m not going to comment on them here, as I don’t know about them.

Q. – Two questions: first of all, we know Donald Tusk wondered what special place in hell there was for Brexiteers in the events we’ve had – Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister comparing it to a Monty Python sketch. Do you worry that Britain becomes a laughing stock in Europe because of events, a grosse blague en Europe, and also, for you, looking at the situation down the line, is this also about the blame game for you: that somebody’s ultimately been pushing the other off the side, and I wonder if you want to make sure it’s not Europe, and that’s why the dates keep going back?

THE PRESIDENT – Listen, let me begin with your first question: clearly the British people voted without all the facts, as I was saying earlier. You referred to what Donald Tusk said about those who pushed hard for Brexit – who, everyone will incidentally have noticed, aren’t in a hurry to implement it. The British people made a sovereign choice through a referendum, on the basis of a considerable amount of lies. Those who extolled the virtues of that plan vanished from the political scene and left others to implement it. And today we’ve got a genuine political crisis, unprecedented in our democracies, in which political leaders – governments and representatives of the people – are unable to find the political solution and political majority to implement what the people wanted. That’s unprecedented. But what does it show? It shows the situations of deadlock we can find ourselves in when, somehow, we bring direct democracy into conflict with representative democracy, and when we let direct democracy take place in a game of lies and misinformation. And it’s actually an extremely practical lesson for all our democracies. I’d like us to find a solution. That’s also why the rules I’ve set myself – and this comes back to your second question about the blame game – are quite straightforward: it’s about saying, firstly, that we must respect the British people’s vote. I know that many European leaders are tempted to say: “basically, we’re going to act as though nothing happened and continue, we’re going to sweep it all under the carpet and introduce extension after extension.” We’re world champions at doing that. Things will never really be clear, but we’ll introduce extensions. I think if we do that, we put ourselves collectively in a situation where we allow some people, in all countries, to say: “when the people votes for something which doesn’t suit these European leaders, they do everything to avoid implementing it.” And I say this to you with full knowledge of the facts, as president of a country in which the people voted in 2005 and the Parliament did the opposite in 2007. And I think it’s a real mistake. I believe strongly, passionately in the European project. It’s at the heart of my political engagement. But I’ve always believed from day one that Europe is built with and for the people. Not without them; that time is over. So we must respect what the British people have chosen and decided.

Secondly, we must clarify the situation for the British people. This is why it’s not about humiliating or shutting [them] out, but at some point we’ve got to set ourselves deadlines. And indeed I thought – this is an option some people put on the table – that wanting to hold a crisis summit next week was a bad idea. In a way the 27 would have shouldered the responsibility, after a negative British vote and a few days before the momentous date of 29 March, of saying either “no deal” – and everyone would have said “so it’s [because of] you” – or another extension, in which case people would have said: “they’ve just voted ‘no’ and they’re giving extensions?”, with lingering uncertainty and the possibility of the British still holding European elections. That’s why what we proposed yesterday was to say, let’s take two clear dates.

12 April is the deadline for the British to be able to hold European elections, and so in a way this scenario will be verifiable at that point; there’s no ambiguity. And so either an agreement is reached or there’s another proposal, at which point the issue is still open, and the decision may be taken on holding these elections and whether the British participate. Or, at that point, and very clearly, they will no longer participate.

And then 22 [May], since that’s the last day before voting starts, and there has to be great clarity to our fellow citizens and vis-à-vis the law.

Q. – You’ve spoken about the lies in the British [referendum] campaign. In the event of no deal, what would you like to say to the Brexiters who will have to renegotiate trade treaties with Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping? Good luck? (…)

THE PRESIDENT – Well, first of all, unfortunately, in the event of no deal, it’s the British people who will be the first affected. Some of the Brexiters we’re talking about will be a long way away, and most of them will be well protected themselves, because they’re well off.

And so the first victims will be those who face the negative consequences of an uncoordinated departure from the European market, of the economic crisis and of the economic impact it’ll have, which has now been quantified pretty much everywhere. It’s not the people who advocated it, it’s the people who are going to suffer it.

Then, once again, the British people are our friends, so I don’t welcome the difficulties that may be in store. We’ll continue to have a strong tie with the UK, not only historically but economically, on defence, in strategic terms and on migration issues. So I really hope they can succeed in this new chapter that is opening. So I don’t welcome this at all, but I hope many people on the other side of the Channel will condemn the cynicism that prevailed over the vote three years ago, and the great difference between the reality they may have to experience and what they were promised. That’s what we’re seeing. People were told, “it’ll be easy” – look at the situation; “it’ll be quick” – bravo; “we’ll gain tens of billions of pounds” – the bill has been presented and is known, and it’s the opposite; and “we’ll be much stronger afterwards” – find me an expert who says that. It’s terrible. So there were a lot of lies. (…)

Q. – In Europe there are third countries that have been negotiating bilaterally with the European Union for a long time, and with some success. If the UK were to find itself in this situation, in the event of no deal, who will fire the starting pistol for future bilateral negotiations? What will the method for renegotiating a relationship be?

THE PRESIDENT – Listen, I don’t want to open a Pandora’s box of speculation today. First of all, it wouldn’t be respectful to the British Parliament and people. And it would put us in a situation where we further increase the number of unknowns, when our discussions have shown they’re still numerous. For my part, I’ll be committed to our staying united on this issue too. The European Union is strong when it’s together. We showed this on the discussion about implementing the withdrawal. A lot of people gambled on the Europeans being divided, saying: “it’ll be terrible for Europe, because the 27 are going to be divided and we’ll manage to find a good solution for us”. We’re also at this point because Europe has been united. And so on the future relationship, as you very rightly said, this morning we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the European Economic Area; it was a wonderful moment of unity, consolidation and the future. But we negotiate it together. We discuss it together. We have special relations with Norway, we have trade treaties with others. We do it together. And so at the right time, we’ll do together what is good for everyone. (…)./.

Brexit – Statements by M. Emmanuel Macron, President of the Republic, following the European Council (excerpts)

Brussels, 21 March 2019

THE PRESIDENT – Firstly, all 27 of us [member states] remained united, which is the first goal in my eyes and what we’ve managed to do since the beginning of this discussion more than two years ago. And so a common position was identified.

The second thing is that, in a very clear way, we provided options and a response to Prime Minister Theresa May, but with limits: our limits and our conditions. We must put ourselves in a position to provide a response to the British people’s vote to head towards a Brexit, and respect it. Secondly, we must do so in an orderly way. And the third point is that we must remove the uncertainty through clear rules. So we confirmed our wish to validate the so-called Strasbourg agreement between Prime Minister May and President Juncker, and we confirmed that under no circumstances and under no conditions would there be any renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement. In my eyes, that’s an extremely important point.

Next, regarding the timetable, we provided two dates: 12 April and 22 May.

If, in the coming days or weeks, the British Parliament doesn’t reach an agreement, it will then be up to the leaders to return to the 27 member states to make additional proposals, and we have postponed the date of 29 March to 12 April. Why? Because that’s the deadline beyond which the British will no longer at any rate be able to organize European elections, and therefore the date on which they’ll have to have removed all ambiguities, including about their own participation in those elections. And then, if there’s a vote in favour, we decided on the 22 May deadline. Why? So that there can be no ambiguity under any circumstances, or any risk to the European elections that will be organized between 23 and 26 May. So we provided a response to the British request, but a response that protects our interests and allows the European Union to carry on functioning. (…)

Q. – The European Union didn’t want to shoulder responsibility for Brexit. Is that why you’re giving yourselves a little more time?

THE PRESIDENT – The European Union today doesn’t hold all the cards, because everything depends on the British vote. Today the European Union has to face up very clearly to a British political crisis. British politicians are currently unable to implement what the people asked of them. The people voted for Brexit. But today we have a situation where the British Parliament is telling us, “we’re not voting for the agreement that was negotiated for two years, and we’re voting against all our deals”. In short, it’s an empty package. It’s a real political and democratic crisis. But that crisis is British. In no way must we remain locked in that situation; that’s why we set ourselves two deadlines. We’re organized; if there’s no agreement, France, like the other countries – and Michel Barnier reiterated this – has organized itself to cope with a no deal, to restore [border] controls, cope with all that, and so there’s no uncertainty and we’ll protect everyone – including sectors like fisheries – who will be impacted; but we have responses to this. So we won’t sit on our hands, but we wanted to provided clear responses that are compatible with our own timetable. But now it’s up to the British to remove their ambiguities. We don’t have any: we’ve provided two very clear dates.

Q. – Was France forced to soften its position?

THE PRESIDENT – No, because, as you know, I wanted two things.

The first was to respond and provide some deadlines. Why? Because I believe we must try as much as possible to help Prime Minister Theresa May try and win this third vote if it’s possible, and so I was in favour of a delay but, as I said at the beginning of this Council, a limited and technical one. And I followed up on that and I was followed by other member states that didn’t want us to go too far. And under the circumstances, we have some dates that are compatible with our elections.

The second thing is that I absolutely wanted to avoid a summit next week that would have been a crisis summit in bad circumstances, after once again, perhaps, a British non-decision and before the date of 29 March. We responded clearly to this situation by making the British face up to their responsibilities and saying, ultimately, “you have the choice to vote and clarify your position between now and 12 April. After 12 April, if you’re still not here and have decided not to organize elections, you’ll no longer be able to be here after the European elections, whatever happens. And so the responsibility now is on the British side, and I think that’s one of today’s major achievements. And so we then confirmed that our European elections had to be held in a clear framework.

Q. – So was it France that laid down the conditions?

THE PRESIDENT – It was a collective effort. We have a negotiator, Michel Barnier, who did an outstanding job with all the Commission’s staff. But I think we must both try and help Prime Minister May secure, try to secure this vote and this last chance. But we mustn’t fall into the trap either of being, in a way, the people playing the bad guys or of taking the British people’s decision for them, which is now their responsibility. We’ve taken our responsibilities and our decisions from the outset. We respect the British people’s vote. We spent two years negotiating an agreement. And we’ve set deadlines. It’s now up to the British political system, finally, to provide a clear response. The two dates have been given, 12 April and 22 May; they’ll be stuck to.

Q. – You’re making arguments that suggest she can win this vote. Do you think she still believes that?

THE PRESIDENT – I won’t speculate on the votes or lack of votes; I think everyone who has speculated has found out that jurisprudence or customs dating back to the beginning of the 17th century could be discovered that would surprise everyone. So I think on this issue we must remain cautious. In this case, I’m stoical. I’m trying to ensure we can control what depends on us. What doesn’t depend on us doesn’t depend on us. (…)./.

Brexit – Statements by M. Emmanuel Macron, President of the Republic, on his arrival at the European Council (excerpts)¹

Brussels, 21 March 2019

THE PRESIDENT – Listen, we’re going to begin a European Council, at a time which is clearly extremely important for our project, with a discussion of Brexit first of all. Prime Minister Theresa May has asked – in the event of a vote in favour [of the withdrawal agreement] by the British Parliament – for a purely technical extension. We’re going to discuss that, but I’m obviously completely open to there being a technical extension – which must be the shortest one possible – in the event of a vote in favour. We must then be clear: clear to ourselves, our British friends and our peoples. The first thing is that we’ve been negotiating the withdrawal agreement for two years. It can’t be renegotiated. The second thing is that, in the event of a British vote against, we’d be heading towards a no deal. We all know that. And it’s absolutely essential to be clear over the next few days and hours, because the smooth functioning of the European Union is at stake. We can’t have, shall I say, excessive extensions, which would damage our ability to make decisions and act. We must respect the British people’s choice. And we must also prepare the future relationship – which we’re committed to and which is important – both between the British and Europe and between the British and the French. (…)

Q. – Have you changed position on the delay, because you were saying a few months ago that London could skip the European elections? Is this no longer the case?

THE PRESIDENT – We’ll have to discuss the date of this delay, and I’m also waiting to see what Michel Barnier, Donald Tusk and all the legal services tell us. And so I’m simply saying that if there is a delay, it can only be a technical one. We can’t have a situation where, in the long term – without a clear idea of a way ahead, without a plan, without a political majority – we end up prolonging the current situation. But we’re obliged to adapt to what is a British political crisis. Should the British secure no majority in favour of any plan, it would be irresponsible on our part to say we’re granting any extensions, other than purely technical ones, without knowing what they want to do with them. No extension to renegotiate a withdrawal agreement; we’ve been renegotiating for two years. No extension if there isn’t a clear majority to give a mandate on the future relationship. And so there needs to be a profound political change for there to be something other than a technical extension.

Q. – What kind?

THE PRESIDENT – Well, it’s up to the British to tell us; we can only take a decision based on what we’re given. But I think that this clarity is also necessary, as we speak, in view of the situation we’re in, to respect the British people’s vote, protect the European project and the interests of all the other Europeans too.

Q. – [inaudible]

THE PRESIDENT – No, I’m an extremely patient person who respects all our forms of sovereignty. And I think it’s very important at this time to show that the European leaders respect and listen to the choice made by the people when they vote, and defend the interests of their people throughout the project. There you are. So I think we need to be consistent. We can’t act as if the British, nearly three years ago now, hadn’t voted “no”, hadn’t voted in favour of Brexit. That would be irresponsible and disrespectful towards British sovereignty. But nor can we ignore our own sovereignty, the defence of our interests and the fact that our peoples chose a European project so that it makes progress, protects their interests and is able to defend Europeans in the midst of globalization. (…)

Q. – What happens if…

THE PRESIDENT – No listen, I’m not making any judgement, I’m simply saying that there’s a political crisis which must be resolved; it’s up to the British to do this. At any rate, as European leaders we must be clear. But I haven’t any comment or assessment [to make], the Prime Minister was clear this morning, I heard her; she would like there to be a vote, a swift, definitive decision imminently.

Q. – Can we talk off the table: what do you think of the speech of the Prime Minister? Do you think she could be blamed [inaudible]?

THE PRESIDENT – Look, I’m not here to comment any other political system, I’m just here to say we do respect the vote of British people, we do respect what the Prime Minister and the Parliament are making, but we have to be clear: we can discuss and agree on an extension if this is a technical extension, in case of a “yes” vote on the agreement we negotiated for two years. In case of a “no” vote, I mean, directly, it will guide everybody to a no deal for sure. This is it. I have no other comments at this stage.

We’re ready for any situation, and obviously France is prepared legally and practically for any situation because know the timetable, and we’re committed to protecting our interests, our borders and our fellow citizens. So we’re ready technically for all these solutions.

Q. – You haven’t spoken about small businesses.

THE PRESIDENT – We’re obviously on the side of French small businesses, French citizens and all business sectors. I’m aware of the anxiety that exists in particular among our fishermen, and I want to reassure them here: we’ll be at their side to provide them with very concrete responses in the event of difficulties, but may I say that Brexit wasn’t the choice made by France but the choice made by the British people. We can regret it, comment on it, but we’ve had time to prepare ourselves legally and technically. We’re here; the French state will stand alongside its businesses and fellow citizens. We’re also very committed to the Europeans and in particular Britons living in France, and so we’ve taken every measure to ensure things are ready. Now there’s an element of the unknown, namely what the British are capable of deciding in the coming days and weeks. But we must be clear to ourselves as French people and, at European level too, ensure that the European project can continue and that Europe is strong./.

¹M. Macron spoke in French and English.

Published on 08/10/2019

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