French writer MARION VAN RENTERGHEM on the double-speak of her country’s leaders who claim this week’s election will bring certainty to Europe.
Last weekend, as I listened to French government minister Amélie de Montchalin speaking on the radio about Brexit, I had the sense that our leaders now look at you Brits with the same bewilderment that the Parisians viewed the Persians, in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters. For “how can you be Persian?” back then, read “how can you be British?” today.
Sadly, the rules of diplomacy prevail and so our ministers tend not to answer as they really think.
Instead of telling the truth – namely, that they see you as Persian Martians jumping into space then clinging stubbornly to endless eccentric discussions about the brand of the parachute – they’d rather politely echo what your prime minister wants, says and promises. As if what Boris Johnson wants, says and promises – “Get Brexit done” – was as unambiguous and straightforward as he pretends.
President Emmanuel Macron can do nothing but join the prime minister’s game and play along with it as well.
De Montchalin, Macron’s minister for European affairs, said on the France Inter radio station that, at last, the UK’s election would provide “clarification”. At last, she said, the vote would “realign the British people, the British parliament and the British government”, after the messy conflict of the past three years.
That is the public posture. Speak privately to anyone in charge in Paris or Brussels and they will tell you that so far as they are concerned, once the Withdrawal Agreement is through the UK parliament, that is the beginning and not the end of the really difficult stuff.
In Montesquieu, the comments of the Parisians on the Persians say something about both of them. Similarly, de Montchalin says as much about Britain’s chaotic democracy as she does about her own French Cartesian mindset.
Not that our minister is out of the loop. She’s smart and qualified. But she is la voix de la France, and la France is required to speak and act as though le Royaume-Uni is behaving rationally.
Like all his European counterparts, Macron needs to act as though the leader of the UK was one single non-fluctuating indivisible person.
He needs to act as if Boris Johnson was right in calling out the last parliament for blocking his Withdrawal Agreement – it didn’t – and vowing that a new Conservative majority would mean a majority for ‘the will of the people’ and the plan to “Get Brexit done”.
The problem, though, is that the prime minister is neither non-fluctuating, nor single, nor indivisible. A Boris Johnson is multiple. There are many of him per day.
Which of the Boris Johnsons is going to win – or to lose – this week? Which of the Boris Johnsons represents the will of the Tories, let alone ‘the will of the people’? Which of the Boris Johnsons is going to implement which of the Brexits – since he himself sold so many various versions of it before and after the referendum?
Is it the Boris Johnson who once promised that the UK would keep all the benefits of the single market, or the one who claimed the UK didn’t want any of them? Is it the Boris Johnson who accepted a border in the Irish Sea he said he’d never accept, who paid to the EU the money he said he did not have to give back, who tried to mute a parliament he said he would help to ‘take back control’?
Is it the one who condemned Theresa May’s deal or the one who used it as the basis of his own? Is it the one who wanted to quit the EU because of its dreadful technocracy, or the one who has designed an even more monstrous technocratic double-customs system, dividing Northern Ireland and Great Britain? Is it the one who says to the Northern Irish that they are privileged to stay within the rules of the EU, or the one who says to the British that they got the best of the deals?
OK, now there is a deal, and if Johnson gets a majority this week, parliament will pass it. However, the deal is nothing but a very general agreement. It opens up years of specific negotiations – commercial, social, cultural, agricultural and many more – perhaps eventually to a no-deal, or a ‘BRINO’, a Brexit In Name Only, that pretends to be Brexit, without changing anything, that will see the UK take all the regulations from Europe while claiming dishonestly to make them.
Given all the Boris Johnsons we’ve seen all the way through, which of them is now going to lead the transition period and the deals/no-deals for the years to come?
Where is the clarification France’s leaders pretend to see on the horizon?
“Most important for us in Europe is a majority in Westminster to deliver a clear roadmap and tell us quickly how to follow up on the deal,” de Montchalin said.
We are certainly all fed up and eager to get this over with. But frankly, what kind of majority are we talking about when the government view of that roadmap, and of the final destination, is unclear; and when there are so many competing elements to Boris Johnson that there is actually not even a majority inside himself?
It is certainly a cruel political irony, that at the moment when all the polls seem to give a majority for Remain, they also suggest a majority for Johnson and his Brexiteer Tory party.
This is the reason why the election won’t bring any response to the only single question the whole country is currently asking: Brexit.
This is one of the reasons why, however effective the simple slogan may be, the election won’t get Brexit done.
And this is the reason why it is unfair that the last, now dissolved parliament, was blamed for having blocked Brexit thus far.
Brexit was created in the image of its God, the Boris Johnson who campaigned for it and sold it: Numerous, divisible, psychologically fluctuating. How could any majority of MPs bear the burden and responsibility of a multiple man? They would have to vote differently every day to match his daily conflicting statements. De Montchalin knows that very well, every time she says the election brings forth clarification. Perhaps she is not so Cartesian after all.
Marion Van Renterghem is a journalist and writer. Her most recent book is Mon Europe, je t’aime moi non plus (May 2019)