Macron opposed ‘very long’ Brexit delay to avoid hampering departure

French President Emmanuel Macron with wife Brigitte at the 34th annual dinner of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France at the Louvre Carrousel in Paris. (Reuters pic)

PARIS: France’s Europe minister on Thursday defended President Emmanuel Macron’s opposition to granting a Brexit extension of more than six months, saying it would have been seen as an attempt by the EU to keep Britain in the bloc.

On Wednesday, Macron led a group of EU countries that resisted a move by a majority of EU leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to give Britain an extension of up to a year.

British Prime Minister Theresa May had herself asked for a shorter extension, until June 30.

In the end the leaders gathered in Brussels settled on October 31, which May accepted.

European Affairs Minister Amelie de Montchalin defended Macron’s unbending line, which caused frustration among fellow EU leaders.

“A very long extension until December 31 or March 2020 as some were proposing… would have been seen by part of the public in Britain, but also in other member states, as an attempt by the EU to hamper Britain’s departure by delaying the decision for as long as possible in hoping that they will change their mind,” Montchalin told parliament.

“EU members or institutions cannot decide in Britain’s place to go against their democratic expression (referendum) in 2016,” she said, echoing Macron, who defended his opposition to a longer extension on the basis that he wanted to “respect the British vote”.

Jean-Louis Bourlanges, an MP from the centrist, pro-EU MoDem party, was critical of the decision to give May more time than she had sought.

Calling the July-October period “essential” for the new EU parliament that will be elected next month – and which will include British MEPs if Britain is still a member of the EU on May 22 – Bourlanges said it was “unacceptable” that a country “that has decided to no longer be part of the club” be involved in the process.

“I’m not blaming president Macron because I see how isolated he was,” Bourlanges said.

Macron on Wednesday argued that tolerating a Brexit delay until October 31 was aimed at ensuring “the proper functioning of the EU”.

But an MP from his Republic on the Move (LREM) party, Xavier Paluszkiewicz, voiced scepticism.

Paluszkiewicz said he was worried that hardline Brexiteers would run in the European elections to “sabotage the work of the European Parliament and act like a veritable Trojan horse.”