Macron remains committed to the goal of building European sovereignty

As he shifts into re-election campaign mode, the French president can boast of having given the EU fresh impetus over the last four years

 Emmanuel Macron: more than half the 60 proposals made by the French president  in his Sorbonne speech in 2017 have been realised. Photograph:  Ludovic Marin/EPA

Emmanuel Macron: more than half the 60 proposals made by the French president in his Sorbonne speech in 2017 have been realised. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/EPA

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Four years ago this week, French president Emmanuel Macron delivered what may have been his most important address; a 100-minute speech to students at the Sorbonne entitled “Initiative for Europe”.

Europe alone can ensure true sovereignty, that is to say our capacity to exist in today’s world and to defend our values and interests,” Macron said. “There is a European sovereignty to be built, and a necessity to build it.”

Macron flew the EU’s blue and gold flag at his campaign rallies. On the night of his election, he walked across the courtyard of the Louvre while the European anthem played.

As he now shifts into re-election campaign mode, he can boast of having given the EU new impetus, and of having changed French attitudes. No French political party, not even Marine Le Pen’s far right Rassemblement National, now advocates leaving the Union.

Michel Barnier, a conservative presidential candidate who twice served as EU commissioner, and whose handling of Brexit negotiations was widely praised, might have rivalled Macron’s European credentials. But Barnier stunned Europhiles earlier this month by proposing that France be exempted from the rulings of the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights.

The calamitous US withdrawal from Afghanistan has strengthened Macron’s initiative to create a rapid reaction force

The Sorbonne speech was “the spinal column” of France’s EU policy, an adviser to Macron said.

“It seems to us that, after four years, Europe has profoundly changed and its software has changed in the direction proposed by the president of the Republic, that is to say towards building European sovereignty.”

Macron’s photograph appears on six of the eight pages of the glossy brochure issued by the Élysée to mark the anniversary of the Sorbonne speech.

More than half the 60 proposals made by Macron in 2017 have been realised, the adviser said. Only five or six have gone nowhere.

The calamitous US withdrawal from Afghanistan has strengthened Macron’s initiative to create a rapid reaction force. EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen says the three main hurdles are poor intelligence co-operation, incompatible weapons systems, and weaknesses in cyber defence.

A US Air Force aircraft prepares for take-off from the airport in Kabul on Monday. Photograph: Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images
A US Air Force aircraft prepares for take-off from the airport in Kabul during the August evacuation. The EU Battlegroup became operational in 2007 but was never activated, not even to evacuate EU citizens from Kabul. Photograph: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty

The EU approved just such a force – the EU Battlegroup – at the Helsinki summit in 1999. It became operational in 2007, but was never activated, not even to evacuate EU citizens from Kabul, because its deployment would require a unanimous decision.

Macron’s intervention force would raise the Battlegroup number from 1,500 to 5,000. The 13 participating member states are analysing the reasons for the Battlegroup’s failure, the adviser to Macron said.

Three priorities

In his Sorbonne speech, Macron said “terrorist propaganda” must be removed from the internet. Recent EU legislation requires “terrorist” content to be taken down within an hour. Macron made similar proposals with Theresa May and Jacinda Ardern after extremist attacks in Britain and New Zealand.

The European civil protection force proposed by Macron became operational in 2019 and was mobilised against forest fires in Greece this year, and in Croatia following an earthquake in December 2020.

The Élysée refers to the French presidency of the EU by the acronym “PFEU”. It will start on January 1st, 2022, and will overlap with Macron’s re-election campaign. Analysts say Macron has only the three “useful” months of January, February and March to fulfil his European goals before the election in April. If he loses, his successor will complete the French EU presidency.

Many of Macron’s economic proposals run counter to Ireland’s vision of itself as a small economy open to the global market

Macron has set three priorities. As part of his drive for a “social Europe”, he wants a Europe-wide minimum wage, as foreseen in the Sorbonne speech. He abandoned plans for a national carbon tax when a hike on diesel fuel sparked the yellow-vest protests. Now he wants a carbon tax at Europe’s borders, which would penalise the EU’s trading partners for greenhouse emissions in their countries. He also wants to regulate the internet giants.

With Angela Merkel’s departure, Macron becomes the most powerful man in Europe. Despite Ireland’s status as the most pro-EU member state, and despite excellent relations with Paris, Dublin could face some tough decisions soon. Ireland will come under increasing pressure to endorse the international agreement on a minimum corporate tax rate. Macron tried to achieve agreement within the EU, then shifted to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development when he was blocked by Ireland and other countries.

French president Emmanuel Macron and then Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull (centre) standing on the deck of HMAS Waller, a submarine operated by the Royal Australian Navy, at Garden Island in Sydney in 2018. Photograph: Brendan Esposito/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
French president Emmanuel Macron and then Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull (centre) standing on the deck of HMAS Waller, a submarine operated by the Royal Australian Navy, in Sydney in 2018. 'The formation of the Aukus defence alliance ... could stretch Ireland’s loyalties...' Photograph: Brendan Esposito/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The ill-feeling created in France and elsewhere in the EU by the formation of the Aukus defence alliance between Australia, the UK and US could stretch Ireland’s loyalties between the Anglosphere and its sense of European belonging.

Many of Macron’s economic proposals run counter to Ireland’s vision of itself as a small economy open to the global market. And one wonders how long Ireland and five other neutral or non-aligned EU countries can resist Macron’s push for a “Europe of defence”. At Macron’s behest, the EU has for the first time established an € 8 billion defence budget.

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