May and Macron are treading diverging paths in the ever-complex Brexit era, writes Geoff Kitney.
Two events in recent days have perfectly captured the essence of Brexit and the future of Europe.
One was the election of a leader who could be called “a child of the European Union” – new French president Emmanuel Macron. The second was the startling news that the newish British Prime Minister, Theresa May, was open to the idea of bringing back fox hunting in Britain.
If ever there were two events which demonstrated the diverging paths of Britain and France in the Brexit era, these were them: May marching back to an anachronistic and isolationist past at an ever increasing pace; Macron striding towards the future based on an ambitious and optimistic vision of France in a united Europe.
I lived in London at the time of the debate over the legislation to ban fox hunting.
My wife took a petition around our upper-middle-class neighbourhood seeking support for the ban. She was astounded by the antipathy she felt from Conservative voters to her canvassing. Fox hunting, she was told, was “in the British blood” and was “a fundamental right”.
Some were convinced that this was “political correctness” which was being imposed on the United Kingdom by the European Commission.
For those people, May’s support for removal of the ban will be taken as evidence of the wisdom of the people in voting to leave the European Union, reclaiming British sovereignty and reclaiming British traditions.
For Brexit to have the best chance of success, unity is paramount. May has yet to show she is capable of achieving it
But for others, this will be confirmation that Brexit was a decision irrationally driven by nostalgia for a British identity that time and progress have left behind.
As a symbol of the madness of Brexit, it could hardly be more vivid.
Compare this with the symbolism of Emmanual Macron’s extraordinary rise to the French presidency. At the supreme moment of his success – as he emerged to claim victory – he chose the European anthem, Ode to Joy, to announce his arrival. The statement was obvious – France and the European Union are one.
In every sense – in symbolism, in political messaging and in reality – this was the antithesis of Brexit.
Observing this from a distance, it is impossible to avoid the feeling that Marcon’s election has compounded the folly of Brexit. His pledge – to rejuvenate France and recommit to the rejuvenation of the European project – feels like it is right for the times. Brexit feels like the polar opposite.
This being said, however, it can also be seen that Macron and May face strikingly similar challenges.
Brexit and the rejuvenation of the European Union face daunting obstacles.
Britain and France emerge from the democratic processes that resulted in their vastly different choices with deep divisions among their populations.
In Britain, the radical choice for separation and the intensity with which the winners are ramming their choice down the throats of those who wished to remain in Europe are testing May’s political skills.
For Brexit to have the best chance of success, unity is paramount. May has yet to show she is capable of achieving it.
[For some fox hunting] will be confirmation that Brexit was a decision irrationally driven by nostalgia for a British identity that time and progress have left behind
In France, the majority voted for a future in Europe, despite deep uncertainty about what that future holds. For that, Macron owes his people a presidency that boldly tackles the economic and social challenges within France and the pan-European challenges that will require French leadership, in partnership with the major European powers, to overcome.
If Macron succeeds, he will unify his country. If he fails, the consequences for France and for Europe will be severe.
How well a leader so young and untested will do at this challenge is impossible to say. However, there are some who are optimistic.
An EU insider who spoke to Chief-Exec.com privately said he had worked with Macron when he was an adviser to the French presidency. He and Macron were what is known in the business as “sherpas” – the officials who work behind the scenes on the policy and logistical preparations for EU leadership meetings.
He said Macron made a strong impression on his counterparts from other EU countries.
“He showed strong leadership qualities from the first time we engaged with him,” the insider said. “He was a very confident person, a clear thinker and brilliant problem solver. I am very hopeful about his presidency.”
He said he believed Macron’s election would come to be seen as a turning point for France and for Europe.
Macron’s election has already changed the conversation about the political outlook for Europe and the wider western democratic order which the Brexit vote and subsequent talk of inexorably rising nationalism and conservatism set in motion.
In this sense, more is riding on Macron’s success than May’s.
Nevertheless, the world will be watching both intensely in what will be a period in which new leaders face some of the most daunting challenges of the 21st century so far.