He has a Welsh wife, a former British ambassador among his friends and advisers and an avowed admiration for Margaret Thatcher. So surely Francois Fillon will help Britain secure an advantageous Brexit deal if the conservative former prime minister wins France’s presidential election next May.

Don’t count on it. Whoever takes over the Élysée Palace next year will have French interests at heart and will be focused on reviving a stagnant economy, making friends and winning influence in Berlin, Washington and Brussels, and only in fourth or fifth place reaching out to London.

“The French are the most outspokenly hardline on Brexit. The establishment consensus is that Britain must pay a price for choosing to leaving the EU that deters any others from following suit.  Besides, they want financial business to move to Paris,” says a senior European diplomat in the French capital. “That won’t change if Fillon gets in.”

Some British media have gone overboard in depicting Fillon as a Gallic Tory country squire who is just as skeptical about Brussels as the English are. After all, didn’t he vote against the Maastricht Treaty that instituted Europe’s single currency? Indeed he did. But he is a classical Gaullist who believes in a “Europe of nations” as a multiplier of French influence.

Fillon has avoided discussing Brexit since he confounded the opinion polls to win the French conservative primary last month. But he did give a thoughtful speech about the future of Europe in the National Assembly on June 28, five days after the British vote, which stands as his manifesto on Brexit and European affairs.

He called for a calm, quick divorce between Britain and the EU, “without hostility or special favours”, stressing there was no reason to let UK-based financial firms keep the passports that allow them to sell services throughout Europe while being regulated in London. The lucrative clearing of trade in euros should move from the City to the eurozone, he said.

“You can’t leave the family home, stop paying towards the upkeep and still sleep under the roof and enjoy bed and breakfast,” Fillon said. “On the other hand, we can negotiate an agreement on good neighbourly relations and if, as I hope, they request it, maintain and deepen our defence agreements with Great Britain.”

Fillon went on to argue that the top priority should be to make Europe economically independent of China and the United States. He proposed making the euro into a global reserve currency like the dollar, without saying how that could be achieved. And he called for a stronger eurozone economic government with national leaders – not the European Commission – in charge, accountable to national parliaments rather than the European Parliament, and with a timetable for harmonizing corporate taxes.

While Fillon may admire Thatcher’s legacy in shrinking the state, cutting taxes and privatizing much of the economy, that won’t make him an ally for Theresa May in the Brexit talks. On the contrary.

“We won’t make history by unraveling Europe,” Fillon declared in parliament. “Unless we want to scupper ourselves, the national interest requires us to be European.”

And in a warning with relevance for Britain, he concluded: “Europe is a place of power where strong nations set the pace for the others. When France is weak, it is on the receiving end of Europe; when it is strong, it leads the others.”

by Paul Taylor | 09.12.2016

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