Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron: The odd couple determined to get Brexit done

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron during a European Union leaders summit in Brussels on Oct 17, 2019.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron during a European Union leaders summit in Brussels on Oct 17, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS (BLOOMBERG) - When Boris Johnson first coined his slogan "Get Brexit Done", the president of France probably wasn't top of the list of people he thought he could turn to for help.

After all, for three years Emmanuel Macron has portrayed himself as the European Union's saviour, standing up against the populists and the nationalists inspired by Brexit and excited by anything that tugs at the threads of EU cohesion.

Now the two men are forming an informal bond over getting Britain out of the EU sooner rather than later.

France is holding up approval of a UK request to extend its deadline for leaving the EU. That might sound like an unusual way to help out a British prime minister, but in the strange logic of Brexit, that's exactly how it works.

Mr Johnson doesn't actually want the extension he's asked for - he only submitted the request after being boxed in by his opponents in the UK Parliament. The British premier would rather have a hard deadline and the risk of a chaotic no-deal exit to force lawmakers to endorse his withdrawal plans.

Mr Macron gets that. And he's happy to oblige because on that point at least, their interests are aligned. The French president also wants to get Brexit done.

It's not the way observers thought Brexit was going to turn out.

From the very start of the negotiations in July 2017, two months after Macron's shock election victory upended the old political order in Paris, France has mostly taken the hardest line, frequently to the annoyance of other European governments.

From cooperation on financial services to divvying up fishing waters, the UK's oldest rival has been the most stubborn negotiator.

 
 
 
 

Like previous French leaders, Mr Macron is suspicious of the UK's intentions in Europe. Post-war president Charles de Gaulle twice vetoed Britain's EU membership in the 1960s, while two decades later Francois Mitterrand clashed with Margaret Thatcher over the amount of money the UK contributed.

So Mr Macron knows that acting tough on Brexit plays well domestically. And with Germany stuck in a political rut, getting the UK out of the club will help his efforts to reshape the EU along French lines.

But the dynamic changed when Mr Johnson stepped in to replace Theresa May.

Awkward, anxious Mrs May struggled to strike up a rapport with European leaders - earning only respect, sympathy and, at times, disdain. Mr Johnson's personal chemistry with Mr Macron was evident from the outset.

At the Group of Seven meeting in Biarritz, France, in August, the president laughed heartily as Mr Johnson regaled him with stories in his best French. They agreed on several global issues, and spoke warmly about each other afterward.

"He's a leader who demonstrates real strategic thinking and who has shown commitment and willingness to deliver," Mr Macron said after an EU summit in Brussels a week ago. "Those who didn't take him seriously were wrong, and will continue to be wrong."

Neither of them are typical leaders.

Though both are deeply rooted in their countries' establishments - Eton and Oxford for Mr Johnson, France's National School of Administration for Mr Macron - both see themselves as outsiders.

Mr Johnson spent most of his career on the fringes of the Conservative Party, only really taken semi-seriously.

Mr Macron set up his own movement to jump the queue to the French presidency and smashed the country's traditional two-party system in the process.

As Brexit enters its endgame, both are keeping the world guessing about their real intentions. And the rest of the EU is every bit as annoyed with France as it is with the UK, one EU official said.

At a meeting in Brussels on Friday morning (Oct 25), diplomats from 26 EU countries agreed that the UK should be given another three months to complete its departure. France was insisting on a month at most.

Mr Macron wants to put pressure on the House of Commons to back Mr Johnson's deal, officials said. The rest of the bloc sees that as too much of a gamble because it could lead to a no-deal Brexit. So the decision was deferred.

Mr Johnson spoke to Mr Macron last Saturday when the British Parliament refused to approve his Brexit deal. Officially that's the last time the two conversed, though there's speculation in London they've texted each other since then to discuss France's position on the delay.

For now, a British prime minister has found a French leader he can see eye to eye with on Europe. Let's see how that holds up when they start discussing a trade deal.