France’s president Emannuel Macron is having a busy week meeting two women: one who is going to sever their relationship and the other, looking to strengthen it. On a cold, blustery day straight out of the windblown scenes of the famous novel, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman’’, Monsieur Macron first met with UK PM Theresa May for the 35th Anglo-French Summit in Sandhurst. There were two subjects uppermost on their minds: the plight of refugees in the French town of Calais, which is the French transit point across the English Channel from the UK. And how Brexit will affect the UK-France relationship.
Le Touquet in French means a trivial sum, something of no consequence. But it’s also the name of a 2003 agreement between the two countries which allows British officials to screen refugees in Calais – on French soil, before they can leave for the UK and that is proving to be a big deal. Calais officials are annoyed because the signatories didn’t anticipate just how many refugees would arrive in the seaside town, 33 km across the sea from the UK. There were once 10,000 refugees here. The number has dwindled to 700 and yet, officials say that many arrive without papers and formal family reunification requests and – the numbers are reportedly mounting again.
The youthful Macron swore to amend the agreement and – the exquisite meal in a Michelin-starred pub that his 61-year-old U.K. counterpart invited him to, may have helped in striking a deal. The UK will offer France 62 million dollars to bolster security at French border controls and the two sides signed a new treaty to complement the agreement too. Ms May, of course, hopes that the gesture will soften Mr Macron towards the UK even after Brexit.
"While this summit takes place as the UK prepares to leave the EU, we are and will remain a steadfast partner to our friends and allies, said Ms May at a joint press conference. “And a strong and deep relationship between the United Kingdom and France remains in both of our interests. The president and I agree on the importance of the UK-France relationship, not just to our security but to European security."
When it came to the subject of Brexit and the EU, not even the finest partridge lunch seems to have helped. Macron was unmoved and continued to play hardball.
"First of all, I'm going to be very clear with you: I am not here to reward or punish, the French President said. “ I am here to do the utmost to make sure that our mutual interests are defended. But I have one demand and that is that the single market is preserved. It is one of the benefits of the European Union and one of the bases of the European Union. So now the choice in on the British side, it's not on my side. There cannot be a differentiated access to the single market of which financial services are part.”
It was a bittersweet parting. And just like in the famous novel by John Fowles, Monsieur Macron returned to France – leaving a windblown Ms May gazing across the channel in despair and pondering over their joint future after the formal divorce – Brexit – is through.
But the flexible "Mr Plexiglas" - as some of his opponents call him - is already on to something new: a rendezvous with his all-time favourite lady.
Her age is perfect – she’s 64. She is just as powerful as he is, Europeans say even more so. And the stars seem right since she is finally going to give Germany a long-awaited coalition government. Chancellor Angela Merkel will spend an afternoon on the banks of the Seine on Friday to celebrate an even longer alliance: 55 years of fraternité with France.
Merkel brings Mr Macron the news he has been waiting for: that five months after Germany’s general election, the coalition between her conservatives and the Social Democrats will finally take shape. The two superpowers of the European Union are in synch: Macron is putting tough but necessary reforms in place - of the kind that have propelled Germany’s economy back on track. Ms Merkel and Mr Macron will aim at strengthening the Eurozone and aim at closer cooperation over the three issues closest to their hearts: defence, migration and climate change.