The French, said George Canning, an early 19th-century British foreign minister, “have but two rules of action: to thwart us whenever they know our object, and when they know it not, to imagine one for us, and set about thwarting that”.
It is a centuries-old British narrative, reflected in recent headlines: “Le bust-up”, “France derails Brexit talks”. With elections approaching, Emmanuel Macron, under pressure from Marine Le Pen, is obviously playing hardball. Blame the French.
As far as Brexit trade talks go, however, it does not reflect reality. For once, in a famously fractious bloc, there is unity. France may speak louder than most, but on the question that really matters to Europe, it is far from alone.
On 24 June 2016, the day after the Brexit referendum, the EU’s then top trio of Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and Martin Schulz issued the bloc’s first formal response to a decision they said they regretted, but respected.
The EU was united, the presidents of the European commission, council and parliament said, and would defend its stability and its interests. Any agreement with the UK must therefore be “balanced in terms of rights and obligations”.
In the days that followed, German’s chancellor Angela Merkel and François Hollande, France’s president at the time, clarified further. “There can,” Merkel said – adopting a term destined to become famous – “be no cherry-picking” of Europe’s single market.
There must be “a palpable difference between members of the European family, and non-members,” Merkel said. Hollande agreed: being part of the single market “has advantages”, he said. “The UK must face the consequences of its decision”.
More than four years later, after a “frank” discussion over dinner about a future trade deal found “very large gaps” between the two sides and with just three weeks of the transition period left, the EU band’s line-up may have changed.
Its music has not.
“The principle of fair competition is a precondition to privileged access to the single market,” Ursula von de Leyen, Juncker’s successor, said on Friday at the conclusion of an EU leaders’ summit that spent the sum total of 10 minutes discussing Brexit.
“It is the largest single market in the world, and it is only fair that competitors to our own companies face the same conditions on our own market.”
Clément Beaune, France’s new Europe minister, agreed. “The British want tariff-free access to the single market, but without any conditions on social, environmental, labour, health, safety standards,” he said this week. “That’s unacceptable.”
Merkel – still Germany’s chancellor - sang from the same hymn sheet. “Our companies must be able to count on fair competition conditions, now and in the future,” she said. “One thing is clear: the integrity of the single market must be maintained.”
The single market is the European Union’s crowning achievement. Economically, belonging to it is by some distance the biggest benefit of being an EU member. Ideologically, it symbolises members states’ commitment to ever closer cooperation.
What is it exactly? If the customs union (which Britain is also leaving) got rid of tariffs, or taxes on imported goods, the single market harmonises regulations across the bloc, meaning goods are made to the same standards, and according to the same rules.
It is, says Fabian Zuleeg of the Brussels-based European Policy Centre think tank, “a complex legal construct that relies on uniform and effective application of the law across multiple different jurisdictions.”
Within it, “economic actors, including governments, have rights and obligations that are adjudicated and enforced through independent courts”, Zuleeg said. The entire point is to ensure there are “no exceptions, no loopholes, no differences in interpretation; that there is enforcement, and implementation”.
The single market is the most level of level playing fields. So for the EU27 to accede to a demand from a large, neighbouring and economically significant third country – the UK – for preferential access to it without a binding commitment to abide by its rules is simply unthinkable. It would undermine the essence of the bloc.
That is why the EU27 are not budging.
That is why, when Boris Johnson suggested bilateral talks with Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, they rebuffed his advances: the EU27 decided long ago its red lines to protect the single market, put them in Michel Barnier’s mandate, and have stuck to them. “The commission is our negotiator,” Johnson was told.
That is why, while different countries have different concerns (fisheries, for example) and domestic politics weigh heavier on some (France) than on others, it is wrong to assume that these are what is driving the EU27’s obduracy.
Nothing substantive that any one member state, including France, has said about their requirements for the future trade deal has, thus far, been contradicted by another.
All agree that no deal, regrettable as it would be, is better than a deal that risks giving UK companies an unfair competitive advantage in Europe’s single market - now or in the future. That was the position in 2016 and it is the position now.