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Brexit Pits the British Against Charlemagne 2.0

The news [1] that three top officials in Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet—including foreign minister Boris Johnson—have resigned in protest over the proposed Brexit agreement is a clear indicator that the May government might soon fall.

According to a Sky News poll, 64 percent [2] of Britons don’t trust May to handle the Brexit negotiations. Indeed, according to the odds-making website PredictIt [3], as of mid-day July 10, betters saw just a 51 percent chance that she would survive until the end of the year.

In the meantime, these resignations are a bit, as the Brits might say, awkward, coming as they do on the eve of the NATO summit. That conclave is arguably the most important in years, since it will bring the NATO-phobic President Trump together with his NATO-philic “partners.”

Yet in the UK, Brexit eclipses NATO. After all, two years ago, 17.4 million Britons voted “yes” in a referendum as to whether Britain should leave the European Union. Yet now, in the wake of May’s fumbles—and amidst the creepy X factor of what the Russians might have done to boost Brexit and British discord in general—the situation is murky, to say the least. As Johnson wrote in his resignation letter [4], “The dream of Brexit is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.”

Yes, there’s much doubt over Brexit—more now than there was two years ago. In fact, the polling website WhatUKThinks [5] finds that the “Bremain” side has pulled ahead in the last few months; staying in the EU now leads leaving it by five points.

Yet as we survey the uncertainty in the UK, we might pause to note the certainty in the EU. That is, the EU has played its own steady game, seeking to pull the island back to the continent. One could say that it’s been this way since the French Normans conquered England way back in 1066.

The geopolitical tides have ebbed and flowed across the English Channel many times since, and yet for all that time, the French have been thinking about the English Question. Of course, for their part, the English have been thinking about the French Question. However, recent evidence suggests that the French have thought harder.

That is, over the last few decades, France, operating through the EU, has developed new strategies for tractor-beaming Albion.


Here in the U.S., the EU is often seen as some sort of woolly-headed utopian pipe dream. However, the core of the EU has always been something different—something hard-nosed, not soft-hearted. The EU is ultimately about European greatness, in the spirit of Charles the Great, better known as Charlemagne. And he, of course, was no peacenik.

So it’s revealing that the key honor for the furtherance of European unity is called the Charlemagne Prize [6], awarded by the city of Aachen, Germany. Since 1950, virtually every great Europhile has been an honoree, including, recently, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.

Aachen was known as Aix-la-Chapelle back when Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, made it the capital of his realm, encompassing most of today’s France and Germany. So we can see: for all their many wars over the centuries, the French and Germans share a common origin story. The Rhine River is a kind of psychic and economic spinal cord, commanding the two nations to mutuality.

Thus the vision of a Franco-German kingdom has always been alive. The only question is, as always, who would take the lead.

In 1914 and 1939, the Germans made militaristic bids for supremacy, and we know how those ventures worked out. Since then, the Germans have learned humility, although, even now, some of the old impulses peep through. For instance, on June 13, German foreign minister Heiko Maas [7] laid out his vision of a “large Europe.” The German economy, Maas argued, benefits enormously from the EU—and surely he’s right about that.

However, the Charlemagne vision extends far beyond mere money. And the Germans, having learned the hard way, fully realize that they can’t be seen as the architects of any ambitious political project.

Thus we come to the French, whom Maas repeatedly singled out for praise. Untainted by German guilt, they are free to use their political skills—and German cash—to rebuild the medieval Carolingian empire.

In fact, the French have long seen diplomatie as their special skill. As Macron’s predecessor in the French presidency, François Hollande [8], said in 2016, “Through its diplomacy, France means to be at the center of the world.”

Indeed, there’s something in the Gallic mind that turns toward the twists and turns of human nature. Many are familiar with the knowing cynicism of de La Rochefoucauld, the 17th-century Frenchman famous for the mordant epigram. Not surprisingly, much of Rochefoucauld’s wry oeuvre can be applied to the diplomatic arts [9], viz., “Sincerity is an openness of heart; we find it in very few people; what we usually see is only an artful dissimulation to win the confidence of others.”

A lesser known contemporary was de La Bruyere. His writings were equally cynical, although more actionable, as seen in his essay, “The Sovereign and the State” [10]:

A minister or a plenipotentiary is a chameleon or a Proteus; sometimes, like a practiced gambler, he hides his temper and character, either to avoid any conjectures or guesses, or to prevent any part of his secret escaping through passion or weakness; and at other times he knows how to assume any character most suited to his designs, or which is required, as it may be his interest artfully to appear to other people as they think he really is.

As we know, ideas have consequences, and it’s easy to see the impact of Rochefoucauld/Bruyere-type thinking in subsequent French political triumphs.

Perhaps the greatest of French diplomats was Talleyrand. Born into the Bourbon ancien régime, he soon found himself in the service of the Revolution, and then when that allegiance turned south he reingratiated himself with the restored Bourbon monarchy. Asked about his loyalty switches, Talleyrand responded with a shrug: “Treason is a matter of dates.”

Talleyrand’s apogee came in 1814, at the Congress of Vienna. France had just lost the Napoleonic Wars, and so at the subsequent peace conference, it seemed the French would have few, if any, cards to play. Yet Talleyrand nevertheless figured out how to divide the victory coalition. That is, he pitted the two most reactionary powers, Russia and Prussia, against the two more liberal—or at least less reactionary—powers, England and Austria.

Talleyrand even managed to sign a secret treaty [11] with those latter two powers. As he wrote with relish to his new master Louis XVIII, “The coalition is dissolved…France is no longer isolated in Europe.” As Rochefoucauld, an obvious spiritual predecessor to Talleyrand, put it in his day, “There are no accidents so unfortunate from which skillful men will not draw some advantage.”

Later in the 19th century, the French used their finesse once again to squeeze advantage out of adversity. Having been badly defeated by the Germans in 1871, France over the next two decades lured away two German allies, Britain and Russia. Thus was created the Triple Entente that staved off French defeat in World War I.

Next, in 1945, France, having been humiliated in battle by the Nazis, nonetheless prevailed in the peace: they managed to wangle their way onto the UN Security Council. The French may never regain la gloire on the battlefield, but they can win big in the conference room.

Given all this history, we shouldn’t be surprised that the EU’s chief negotiator on Brexit these past two years, Michel Barnier, is French. And Barnier’s godfather, of course, is Emmanuel Macron, a young man (born in 1977) with a wise old soul. In the spirit of Talleyrand, Macron has managed to keep good relations with both of the current political factions in America—pro-Trump and anti-Trump—even as he nurtures his power base in Europe.

Macron is, indeed, Protean: as this author has argued here at TAC, at any given moment, he is both left and right [12]. We might consider, for instance, the hot-button issue of immigration, which now threatens to undo the EU. In one breath, sounding positively global, Macron says that the EU and Africa have a “shared destiny.” [13] That sounds all nice and liberal, and yet in the next breath, Macron urged Africans to stay in Africa [14] and, for good measure, to reduce their birth rates. Indeed, one wonders whether Macron has read Jean Raspail’s dystopic 1973 novel prophesying France’s demographic inundation, The Camp of the Saints—which this author wrote about for TAC back in 2005 [15]—even if, obviously, the French leader would never admit to such an un-PC thing.

Where does all this Gallic cleverness leave the British? And Brexit?

Just two months ago at TAC, a keen observer [16] suggested that the emerging solution for EU malcontents—which is to say, many of the 28 member states—is “Remexit.” That’s a play on “Remain” and “Exit,” in which member states stay within the Union, even as they ignore unpopular EU rules, notably on migration and refugee settlement. To be sure, this is rather a muddle-through, but then history is mostly a series of muddles.

In the meantime, Macron and the French—and the Germans, in their reticent way—will continue to dream their heroic dreams of Charlemagne 2.0. And why not? After all, it’s a vision they’ve been cultivating these past 1,200 years.

James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at TAC. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Brexit Pits the British Against Charlemagne 2.0"

#1 Comment By Mel Profit On July 11, 2018 @ 8:30 am

An interesting piece, but alas:

1) The most stinging critique of the EU is that it has no rationale, no purpose, other than economic integration. The author references Charlemagne’s lust for glory, for “greatness”. Where is this in evidence in today’s EU?

2) There is another Charles who understood that European integration would come at the cost of French grandeur and independence–DeGaulle. Like Kojeve, he saw the European project as the mission of bureaucrats without chests–the
last men.

3) James Poulos has a different proposal: for Europe to be great again it needs not the EU, with its Merkels and Junckers, but a new Napoleon. Unappetizing perhaps, but in a world of Xi, Putin, Erdogan, and, yes, Trump, Europe needs someone equivalent.

#2 Comment By Johann On July 11, 2018 @ 8:35 am

“Aachen was known as Aix-la-Chapelle back when Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor”

Nope. Aachen was Aachen, and Charlemagne’s real name was “Karl der Grosse” (Charles the Great). He was the King of the Franks. The Franks were a German tribe. The Franks spoke German. Yes, the Franks eventually were the ancestors of Frankreich (France) with other tribes in the former Roman colony of Gaul. Because of that their language became Romantic over time. But at the time of Karl der Grosse, it was still German

#3 Comment By Johann On July 11, 2018 @ 8:40 am

The British establishment will never implement Brexit. They will stall until they think the time is right for another referendum. If it comes out Brexit again, they will stall some more and keep having more votes until the serfs get it right. Then there will be no further votes.

#4 Comment By Michael Kenny On July 11, 2018 @ 9:03 am

The American “problem” with the EU is that they see the EU institutions as the “federal government” of Union, comparable to their own federal government, with the EU treaties as a sort of “constitution” which everyone is forced to obey under pain of some unspecified penalty. A better approach is to try to imagine what the modern United States would look like if it was still governed by the Articles of Confederation. The sovereignty of the Member States is central to everything and, thus, the practice of simply ignoring inconvenient rules while not leaving is as old as the European integration process itself. Indeed, from some of the example the author provides, you could even say that it goes all the way back to Charlemagne! The English (and I say the English, and not the British, advisedly) are no different from the rest of us. Britannia is every bit as good at “waiving the rules” as anyone else. It’s just that they don’t do it openly. They come up with some piece of sophistry which, they claim, proves that whatever happens to suit them is what the rules require! That’s just part of the richness of European culture.
By the way, the EU does not have, nor has it ever had, rules on migration. That’s US anti-EU propaganda. The Member States have never delegated any such powers to the EU institutions. Migration/immigration thus remains within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Member States. The refugee quota system is a temporary measure designed to relieve pressure on Italy and if, for example, Italy were to leave the EU, its northern neighbours would simply refuse to accept any refugees, leaving Italy stuck with all of them. A lovely example of how the various US anti-EU scams cut across each other and cancel each other out!

#5 Comment By Kronos On July 11, 2018 @ 9:10 am

Whatever ‘dream’ Boris Johnson thought he might live to see (he has presented nothing that is cogent and practical, that I’ve seen), the fact is that unmaking a casserole is going to be messy. After four decades, you can’t just pull out the meat, or the potatoes.
And the Leavers’ assumption that they could was far more mendacious than the calculating hopes of France, Germany and the Brussels bureaucracy. Practicality is all in international relations, except in times of actual war. And even then.

#6 Comment By Mel Profit On July 11, 2018 @ 9:35 am


France currently is “struggling” to increase its defense spending to 2%. Germany is at 1.24%, and as always acting aggrieved at demands for more.

I doubt Charlemagne looked to China to pay for his European project. Nor were Bismarck, Bonaparte, and the two Fredericks miserly with their armies and armaments.

Charlemagne 2.0? Only if it were backed by a commanding imperial idea or great collective enterprise (see Ortega y Gasset). Alas, even Macron, the most interesting of the Europeans, is all hat and no cattle.

#7 Comment By Tom Cullem On July 11, 2018 @ 11:29 am

The author is jesting, right? The EU is facing a raft of problems, many of its own making (the migrant crisis is the poster illustration for failure to anticipate, failure to prepare, assumptions of what it could force down the throats of member states, and only weakly addressing when the electoral results of its failures became evident), that have nearly cost Merkel her political career, and resulted in far right governments in charge in Austria, Italy, the Czech Republic, the Sweden Democrats polling in the lead in the runup to September elections in Sweden, and Denmark pushing through severe restrictions on immigration, naturalisation, and integration.

The euro did not turn out to be the alpha and omega of European finance, the Visegrad Group has successfully defied Brussels, the divide between richer northern and western members, and southern members, has never been more evident. If the EU cannot come up with a response to border protection, Schengen is going to fall. Through contempt, condescension, and failure to anticipate a possible LEAVE victory in Britain, it lost Britain’s large contribution and has a large hole in its budget. It hasn’t got a defence force worth a tinker’s curse, and ironically, Britain was one of only two countries in the bloc with a half-decent one.

This isn’t journalism: it’s propaganda.

#8 Comment By Andrew On July 11, 2018 @ 12:19 pm

Pinkerton, and his unusual Comey-like body, has been pretty invisible since his regular Fox News days; now you guys at American Conservative are giving him space to chat up the corrupt bureaucratic EU, and the pernicious idea that a new vote would somehow be justified because of current polls regretting Brexit? I don’t think so. However Britain resolves their current predicament, with a true exit or a Norway option, there is nothing to defend this 21st century tool of German domination of the continent. May it collapse as soon as is humanly possible, the better for Europe, the better for the concept of democratic sovereignty, and the better for the whole world.

#9 Comment By JonF On July 11, 2018 @ 2:07 pm

Re: Aachen was Aachen, and Charlemagne’s real name was “Karl der Grosse”

In High German, yes. But the guy’s native tongue was old Frankish, the ancestor to modern Dutch. So: Karl de (thê) Grote. (Your daily dose of pedantry)

#10 Comment By Anthony M On July 11, 2018 @ 3:47 pm

1) There is no migrant crisis in Europe right now – that was 2016. The refugees are still there for the most part, but there are no real “border” issues currently. That’s an American fantasy just the same as “no-go zones” in Amsterdam. It’s certainly true that anti-migrant factions are doing well politically in many member states, but those are internal issues that those nations can decide for themselves. The political winds will change again soon enough.

2) EU member states aren’t meeting the NATO “requirement” for military spending because their citizens wholly reject the notion they need to increase spending on military hardware when there are no needs to… and endlessly bombing African & Asian countries is far less popular in Europe than in America.

3) The difference in wealth between the North/West and the South/East within the EU isn’t some new issue – it’s actually far better than it was 1000 years ago, or 500 years ago, or 100 years ago. European integration has helped close some of the gaps.

4) Brexit will probably ultimately fail because of Britain’s own history of imperialism (Ireland gets the last laugh).

#11 Comment By Mark B. On July 11, 2018 @ 5:40 pm

The Danish prime-minister recently said “there are two kind of countries in Europe (when seen in a global outlook): small countries and those that do not yet realize they are a small country”. Hence the existance of the EU and of
Brexit. Whatever the future brings to the EU is very uncertain, but the Brits are about to hit rock bottom reality (comparable with 1066) , that is for sure.

#12 Comment By Tom Cullem On July 11, 2018 @ 6:52 pm

@Anthony M – there are no-go zones in Sweden, which the Swedish government has admitted, just as it finally admitted that its tremendous increase in violent crime was tied to the immigrant population; if you read politico eu, you will see that there are, indeed, border issues festering – hence the “migration summit”, the rush to try to adopt Orban’s idea of “disembarkation points” outside Europe for migrants; and if the Swedish polls are anything to go by, the political winds are blowing their way.

EU member states aren’t meeting their NATO requirements because they figure America will never ditch them so they can use their revenue for other purposes. But the truth is, without NATO and American taxpayer money behind it, Putin would be in Vienna by now. There isn’t a country in the EU outside of Britain and France with a defence force worthy of the name.

Please spare us the predictable reference to Britain’s imperialism. After WWII, half the world was banging on the door of Little England to get in. And I didn’t notice Britain’s imperialism presenting any barrier to the EU taking Britain’s money. And speaking of EU morality, how are things going with that deal Merkel cooked up with the dictator in Turkey that saved her political bacon after her disastrous miscalculation on the migrant crisis?

If BREXIT fails, it will be because Britain’s own government handled things so badly that a tribe of monkeys could have done better.

Meanwhile, if a hard no-deal BREXIT actually occurs, I assure you, Irish eyes won’t be smiling.

Let’s see America withdraw totally from NATO next year, and see what happens in Europe, shall we? I imagine it will be Russian eyes that are smiling.

#13 Comment By Moone Boy On July 11, 2018 @ 9:30 pm

Otto Von Bismarck once remarked: “I have always found the word ‘Europe’ on the lips of those powers which wanted something from others that they dared not demand in their own names.”

That’s via Anthony Coughlan and his allies around the National Platform EU Research & Information Centre, who were instrumental in pro-sovereignty debate in all the various EU referenda in Ireland (including the necessity for actually having referenda), has done a great piece of thoroughly researched (and very readable) analysis of the EU at: [17].

(An important approach exemplified by this, is that they specifically remain broadly ideologically ecumenical, so to speak – left, right, centrist and none of the above)

#14 Comment By Thaomas On July 12, 2018 @ 10:32 am

Many people who voted for Brexit did so not knowing (thanks to the right-wing press) that Brexit would mean economic sacrifice. Yes there were those who recognized that and were prepared to accept it as the price of “sovereignty,” but that is not how it was sold. Now that the costs are at last becoming clear, PM May now has the task of negotiating a Brexit means Brexit that preserves as much free movement of goods services and people as possible.

#15 Comment By TheSnark On July 14, 2018 @ 11:08 am

The first goal of the EU and NATO was to stop the cycle of warfare that demolished Europe, and sucked in the US, in the first half of the 20th century. In that, it has been successful for 70 years.

In fact, it has been so successful that most everyone assumes that there can be no more war in Europe. Which results in voters seeing no need to spend money on defense.

But that complacency also results in some politicians feeling it is safe to endorse the nationalistic policies that led to all the wars in the first place. Economic problems and migration encourage them.

Hopefully their countries will not forget the lessons of their not so recent history: giving up some sovereignty and putting up with too much trans-national bureaucracy is a good alternative to risking another European war.

#16 Comment By Johann On July 14, 2018 @ 4:38 pm

“The first goal of the EU and NATO was to stop the cycle of warfare that demolished Europe, and sucked in the US, in the first half of the 20th century. In that, it has been successful for 70 years.”

NATO may have had some very minor contribution for keeping WWIII at bay, but the main reason Europe has had mostly peace since WWII is nuclear weapons.