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Emmanuel Macron rejects Theresa May's plea for help to rescue her Brexit plan

'France wants to maintain a strong, special relationship with London but not if the cost is the European Union's unravelling'

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 27 August 2018 19:58 BST
France will not soften Brexit stance, former ambassador Peter Ricketts warns

Emmanuel Macron has dealt Theresa May a major blow by rejecting the PM's plea to rescue her Brexit plan, ruling out any compromises that risk the EU “unravelling”.

In his first response to their emergency talks, the French president said he respected the UK’s decision to leave the bloc – but vowed to protect the EU’s “integrity” at all costs.

The comments appear to be a severe setback to Ms May’s hopes that the pair’s surprise talks earlier this month could achieve a breakthrough to rescue her beleaguered Chequers proposals.

Significantly, No 10 had refused to say whether any progress had been made, at an island fortress off the French Mediterranean coast – beyond describing it as “a good meeting”.

Speaking to France’s diplomatic corps, Mr Macron showed no sign of breaking ranks – in a speech in which he also lashed out at Donald Trump's “aggressive” isolationism.

“France wants to maintain a strong, special relationship with London but not if the cost is the European Union's unravelling," he told the gathering of ambassadors.

Brexit, Mr Macron said, “is a sovereign choice, which we must respect, but it can't come at the expense of the European Union's integrity”.

Downing Street played down the implications, insisting: “We remain confident of securing a good deal that is firmly in the interests of both the UK and the EU.”

But Ian Murray, a Labour MP supporting the People’s Vote campaign for a fresh Brexit referendum, said Mr Macron’s response had left the Chequers plan “dead in the water”.

“It is filled with contradictions and can clearly satisfy neither her own MPs nor our European negotiating partners,” Mr Murray said.

“Persisting with the Chequers car crash, and praying for a last-minute change of heart from the EU, is not a credible negotiating strategy. It simply increases the chances of a disastrous no deal Brexit.”

And Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman said: “The prime minister’s ridiculed Chequers deal has been given its verdict. It is a no in the UK, and a 'non' in France. It is 'nul points' from Macron.

"Theresa May is now fast running out of options, leaving the UK facing the harsh consequences of her Brexit mess.”

In France on 3 August, Ms May is believed to have issued a “Chequers deal or no deal” message, insisting she could not compromise further on the package thrashed out in June, which sparked two cabinet resignations.

She turned to Mr Macron after a firm rejection from Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, who ruled out both her plans for customs and for the UK to follow EU rules on goods but not services.

Mr Barnier warned that Chequers would “undermine our single market which is one of the EU's biggest achievements” and insisted there would be no rethink.

The government holds out hope that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is willing to be more flexible and viewed Mr Macron as the next – and probably toughest – nut to crack.

However, last week, David Lidington, the effective deputy prime minister acknowledged that hopes of a deal by the original deadline of October are fading fast.

Instead, an emergency summit is possible in November – if any progress has been made behind the scenes – or there will be a last-gasp push for an agreement in December.

In theory, only “withdrawal issues” – notably, the Irish border – need to be nailed down before Brexit day, but Tory MPs will strike down any agreement without progress towards an eventual trade deal.

The Independent is joining forces with the People’s Vote to jointly stage a rally in London on 20 October, calling for a further referendum on any Brexit deal.

More than 712,000 people have signed our Final Say petition to give the final decision to the British people, while around 215,000 are backing the very similar People’s Vote campaign.

Brussels has hit back at the UK government, insisting it will not be to blame if no agreement can be reached because its negotiators are working “day and night, 24/7, for a deal”.

Meanwhile, the government says it is stepping up preparations for crashing out of the EU without a deal, despite open clashes between cabinet ministers over the economic damage.

Philip Hammond, the chancellor, has reiterated the Treasury’s warning of a 7.7 per cent hit to GDP and an £80bn black hole in the public finances, under a no deal exit.

But Dominic Raab, the Brexit secretary, dismissed those fears, insisting most such predictions “proved to be wrong”.

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