Theresa May to plead with Emmanuel Macron to ease Brexit stance
• PM cuts short holiday for summit with French president • Cabinet ministers chase agreement on security and City.
President Macron’s government has not entirely rejected Theresa May’s Brexit compromise ANDY RAIN/EPA
The prime minister will attend a crucial meeting with the French president on Friday at which she will ask him to drop his objections to security co-operation after Britain leaves the European Union.
She will also seek assurances that he will help Britain to secure a comprehensive trade deal for the City of London, something that Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has resisted.
Ministers have taken comfort from the fact that President Macron’s government has not entirely rejected Mrs May’s compromise Brexit plan in public, although some French government sources are scathing in private.
The summit is part of Mrs May’s strategy to go over the head of the European Commission and engage with national leaders directly. The commission has taken a hard line against the customs proposals outlined in her Brexit plan announced at Chequers last month. However, a senior Élysée adviser told The Times that the prime minister should not have high expectations in France. “It is very difficult for Macron,” the source said. “It is not in his gift to offer compromises — only the commission can do that. He will stand firm with the commission.”
A French government official denied that Mrs May had insisted on the talks with Mr Macron, saying that the president “wished to meet her”. However, the official reiterated the long-standing French position that the European Commission should lead Brexit negotiations, and said that Mr Macron would be unlikely to accept a deal that, in effect, bypassed Brussels.
Mrs May will become the first world leader to meet the French president at the Brégançon fort, his holiday retreat in the south of France. She is returning a day early from her holiday in Italy to see him.
The invitation came after Downing Street asked for a meeting. A number of cabinet ministers have visited France in recent days in an attempt to persuade the French to accommodate British demands. Greg Clark, the business secretary, went on Tuesday last week, Philip Hammond, the chancellor, visited on Monday, Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, went to Paris yesterday and Dominic Raab, the Brexit secretary, is going tomorrow.
Mr Hunt used his trip to urge France and Germany to exert their influence to persuade the commission to compromise with Britain. He warned that the chances of the UK crashing out without a deal were “increasing by the day” and would be “a tragedy for Europe”.
The prime minister hopes to thrash out some sort of compromise at a summit with other European leaders in Salzburg on September 20. She will face a torrid autumn if she cannot secure broad agreement on her Brexit package, which has been undermined by the EU’s rejection of her plan for customs co-operation.
Some government sources believe that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is prepared to help Britain to get a strong Brexit deal, after she met Mrs May the day before the Chequers meeting. President Macron has positioned himself as the least emollient of the 27 European leaders, with diplomatic sources saying that he still believes Brexit to be a “huge error”.
Charles Grant, from the Centre for European Reform, said: “The French have been the toughest on Brexit on a range of issues, including financial services and Galileo [the satellite-navigation system being created by the EU]. They are doing this both to grab business and because they genuinely fear how well the Eurosceptic movement will do in the European elections next May, when the National Front could conceivably win more votes. So I think France needs to demonstrate that Brexit doesn’t pay.”
However, one Whitehall source said: “The French are holding fire on the white paper, so we’re making the case to them. It looks like the jury’s still out on them, so that’s why she’s going.”
Mrs May will hold a working meeting with President Macron late on Friday afternoon, followed by a dinner also attended by spouses. The prime minister is likely to put security at the heart of her pitch, urging Mr Macron to soften his stance, to protect citizens from terrorism and crime, as well as urging him to engage with the white paper.
One Conservative MP said that Mrs May should be creative with the French: “She needs to engage with regional presidents. In particular those with a lot to lose — Pas de Calais, etc. They haven’t appreciated how federal these states are.”
Mr Macron is likely to be grateful for a chance to use his summer retreat for official business. He was criticised for ordering a swimming pool at Brégançon at a cost of €34,000. The presidency said the pool would be above ground so that it could be dismantled by future heads of state.
• A 13-mile motorway lorry park planned as a “temporary solution” for post-Brexit traffic could be in place for at least five years. Impact assessments by councils, publicised today, condemn the slow pace of planning for how to deal with traffic at Kent ports. One document criticised work on the temporary scheme and said that a permanent solution would not be achieved until 2023 at the earliest. Kent county council said that the planning system was “not only frustrating but potentially damaging to the UK economy”.