Faced with the populist-right revolt, the Brexit referendum and the rise of nationalist governments, the responses of centrist European leaders have broken into three broad categories. For some, the most sensible option, when faced with such serious challenges to the EU’s legitimacy, is to repatriate powers to the member states – a form of strategic temporary retrenchment. For others, the emphasis must be on consolidation, on standing still, on holding on to integrationist ground already won but renouncing further advances for the time being. That loosely describes Ireland’s stance. The third response is to plough ahead, to speed up, to seek out new areas of pooled sovereignty at a time when global threats underline the rationale for closer integration more clearly than ever.
This third position is championed most prominently by Emmanuel Macron. The French president first set it out in a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris in September 2017, when he laid out proposals for deeper integration. The response of fellow European leaders to his ideas was tepid at best. This week, however, Macron went over the heads of national leaders and addressed himself directly to "the citizens of Europe". In an article published in The Irish Times and by newspapers in the 27 other member states yesterday, Macron called for a "European renaissance" to fend off resurgent nationalists who are expected to make gains in the European elections in May.
"Never since the second World War has Europe been so necessary," he wrote. "And yet Europe has never been so much in danger." He went on to propose a range of new initiatives, from zero net carbon emissions by 2050 and more defence co-operation to a ban on foreign powers funding European political parties and a European agency for the protection of democracies.
Macron's ambition is a welcome tonic at a time when many leaders, spooked by the populist threat, are inclined towards defensive retreat. But he is also acting out of political necessity. Macron built his domestic political success as a liberal, pro-European counterpoint to the insular, nationalist politics of the far-right party now known as Rassemblement National (RN). His next battle with Marine Le Pen's party comes in the European elections in two months, with opinion polls putting the president's La République en Marche outfit level with RN in the race to be the biggest French grouping in the Strasbourg parliament.
Contained within the proposals, moreover, are a number of ideas aimed squarely at voters tempted by the populists, including a “rethink of the Schengen area”, stronger border controls and a plan to renew European industry in the face of Chinese and US competition. Macron may be taking the fight to the populists, but his plea also reflects how those same populists have shifted the terms of European debate.