Post-Brexit: Could it benefit France to see the UK suffer?

Could the political and economic turmoil engulfing the UK help persuade the French that Frexit and Marine Le Pen are not all they are cracked up to be?

Post-Brexit: Could it benefit France to see the UK suffer?
Will Hollande benefit from the mess left behind by Cameron. Photo: AFP

While speculation about how France could gain from Britain leaving the EU remains theoretical, one of the more certain impacts of the shock Brexit vote in the UK was the expected boost it would give the anti-EU populist movement in the country.

Within hours of the result being announced on Friday morning, Marine Le Pen, France’s chief Eurosceptic and arch-enemy of the EU was hailing the victory of the Out campaign.

Le Pen, who once said she wanted to “explode the EU”, did as everyone expected and immediately called for a similar referendum in France.

She has repeatedly made similar calls in the past, but boosted by the UK’s rejection of the EU, Le Pen and France’s other eurosceptics could really start contemplating the idea of “Frexit”.

Except what’s happened since Friday may have taken the wind out of the sails of France's anti-EU movement.

'If  that's what Frexit would look like, no thanks'

With Britain seemingly in political, economic and social chaos that has no quick fix, Le Pen might find the idea of Frexit much harder to sell the longer the UK suffers.

For the likes of President François Hollande and his rival Nicolas Sarkozy, both of whom are expected to be presidential candidates for the 2017 election, seeing the UK in turmoil in post-Brexit referendum may be the best way of silencing Le Pen, who like the UKIP leader Nigel Farage has blamed Brussels for much of France's ills.

Le Pen's influence has grown in recent years to the point where her party picked up 7 million votes in the regional elections and she is almost considered a certainty to make the second round of  the presidential election, at the expense of one of the mainstream candidates – possibly François Hollande.

“For pro-EU centrists in France the Brexit fallout will certainly help in dampening down criticism of Europe,” Philippe Marliere, professor of French and European politics at London’s UCL university told The Local.

“People will think ‘if that’s what Frexit will look like then we don’t want that, thank you very much,” he said.

“If it turned into a fiasco, with the British economy in recession and the dismantling of the United Kingdom, it would clearly make people in France think twice [about leaving the EU].”

But Marliere added that it’s too early to say what the impact will be, plus the demise of Britain would have to be quite spectacular, with “the UK going back to the 1970s” for it to wipe out the growing mistrust that exists in France towards the EU.

“It would need to be pretty bad to kill off the debate in France,” Marliere said.

'There would be major consequences for the French economy too'

French economist Eric Heyer said Hollande and co  would not be able to revel in the UK’s economic turmoil given the fallout from the referendum will badly hit France's own economy – which the president needs to turn around if he wants to have any hope of being re-elected.

“There will also be consequences on the French economy and no one here wants a new financial crisis,” Heyer told The Local.

“That’s why you can understand the French president asking the UK to clarify things as soon as possible,” Heyer said.

If the uncertainty drags on, Heyer says, it could be dangerous for France.

“The position of France is to say 'OK the British people have chosen, not the authorities must act on it, not to make the UK pay for leaving the EU.”

Given the importance of trade and economic relations, it would be of more benefit to France if the good ship UK can weather the storm without too much damage.

Opinion polls suggest more support for the EU

But an opinion poll published in France on Wednesday suggested the chaos in the UK might already have had an impact.

Some 45 percent of those canvassed said they were now in favour of having a similar referendum, down from 53 percent in a similar poll carried out before the referendum.

And tellingly some 45 percent said they would favour remaining in the EU, up slightly from 44 percent pre-referendum, compared to 33 percent who want out.

Pro-Frexit politicians in France will clearly be hoping the UK economy recovers if they want any chance of forcing France out of the EU too.

Speaking to The Local before the referendum presidential candidate and MP Nicolas Dupont-Aignan from the sovereigntist movement, “France Arise” movement said: “The French will be able to see that the UK will not be hit by catastrophe once it leaves the EU. It won’t be the apocalypse.”

Not yet, but with no captain to steer the battered ship, many in the UK fear things will get worse before they get better.

Whatever happens in the UK the key point is that in France there is no sign of Hollande, Sarkozy or any other mainstream politician being willing to take the kind of gamble David Cameron took, by offering a referendum in the hope of winning a domestic election.

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Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Brexit really does mean that Britons are no longer EU citizens. Claudia Delpero looks at whether there's any other way they can keep their rights.

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Britons lost EU citizenship when the UK left the EU, on 1st February 2020. 

It is the first time the EU’s top court has rules on the matter, after a number of legal cases challenged this specific Brexit outcome. The decision also sets a precedent should other countries decide to leave the bloc in the future. 

What has the EU Court decided?

The Court of Justice decided on a case brought by a British woman living in France.

Before Brexit, she could vote and stand as a candidate in her town of residence, Thoux. But after the UK withdrawal from the EU, she was removed from the electoral roll and excluded from the municipal elections that took place in March 2020, during the transition period.  

As the mayor refused her appeal to restore the registration, she took the case to the regional court in Auch, which agreed to request an interpretation of the rules to the EU top court. 

Julien Fouchet, the barrister supporting her and several other cases on the EU citizenship of British nationals, argued that the loss of EU citizenship and voting rights was disproportionate. It would also be contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, given that the woman also lost her voting rights in the UK, having lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Alice Bouillez, who has lived in France since 1984 and is married to a French national, could have applied for French citizenship, but did not do so because she said “this was not necessary” before Brexit and, as a former UK official, she had taken an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

On Thursday the Court of Justice announced the decision about her case. The court ruled that the “possession of the nationality of a member state is an essential condition for a person to be able to acquire and retain the status of citizen of the Union and to benefit fully from the rights attaching to that status.”

The court therefore confirmed that British nationals automatically lost their EU citizenship as a result of Brexit and, as a consequence, Britons also lost their voting and electoral rights in municipal elections in the EU (unless the country where they live set different rules). 

What is EU citizenship?

EU citizenship was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, when borders were opening and the bloc was integrating economically after the end of the Cold War. 

Under the treaty, every person holding the nationality of an EU member state is a citizen of the Union. EU citizenship is additional and does not replace nationality, the treaty specifies. But this creates the first form of a transnational citizenship that grants rights across borders.

EU citizens have the right to access each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination. If they are economically active, they have the right to reside in other EU states and be joined by family members, access healthcare at the same conditions of nationals (for emergency treatment also when travelling temporarily), obtain social security benefits and see their professional qualifications recognised.

Beyond free movement, at the core of EU citizenship there are also political rights, such as participating in the European Parliament election, voting and standing as candidates in municipal elections when living in other EU countries, receiving consular protection from other EU states outside the EU, and taking part in European Citizens’ Initiatives asking to the EU to legislate on certain matters. 

Which EU citizenship rights have Britons lost with Brexit? 

For British citizens who were living in the EU before Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement protects some of these rights. Britons covered by deal have their residence, access to work and education, healthcare, social security and qualifications secured, but only in the country where they were living before Brexit.

But the right to free movement in other EU states, consular protection in third countries, and the political rights attached to EU citizenship were lost, the Court confirmed. 

For British citizens in the UK, the trade and cooperation agreement has preserved some social security rights and, in theory, the possibility to have professional qualifications recognized when moving to an EU country. These provisions however lack details and may take a long time before they work in practice. 

As the “European Union” no longer features on British passports, the possibility to access EU lanes at airports to skip passport control queues has also vanished. 

“The loss of those treasured rights has been clear to those of us living in the EU from the early days of Brexit. But for Brits in the UK, the realities of life outside the EU, and the consequences of Brexit, are only just dawning. Long queues at the borders, roaming charges, obstacles to working abroad, etc. are the new reality,” said Sue Wilson, Chair of the group Remain in Spain. 

While she said the court’s decision was “no real surprise,” she argued that “this is not the Brexit the public were promised, or that the majority voted for.”

Can British citizens get some of these rights back?

Julien Fouchet was disappointed at the Court decision and promised to continue the legal fight, bringing the case at the European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution). 

Other two cases on the matter of EU citizenship for British nationals are still pending at the Court of Justice of the EU. One of them aims to determine whether EU citizenship is a “fundamental status” that cannot be removed but Thursday’s decision could have already provided the answer.

Another option to reconsider some of the rights is the renegotiation of EU-UK trade agreement, when it will be reviewed in 2025. 

Meanwhile, the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders. 

Applying for citizenship is so far the only option to regain voting rights, although not all EU countries allow dual nationality. 

Sue Wilson, who has long campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “There is only one way to restore the loss of our rights, and that’s to rejoin the single market, rejoin the customs union, and eventually, rejoin the European Union… Until that day, we will continue to be second class citizens whose rights have been diminished for the sake of an ideology.”