Federalist tone of Macron’s letter to Europe belies his pragmatism
French president is an antisystem politician of a different stripe
Although French president Emmanuel Macron in his open letter described Brexit as the symbol of Europe’s crisis, he was conciliatory towards the UK, asking that it be included on a European Security Council. Photograph: Caroline Blumberg/AFP/Getty Images
President Emmanuel Macron’s open letter to the citizens of Europe, which was published by this newspaper and dailies in 27 other EU countries on Tuesday, follows on four major Macron speeches on the future of Europe. If the former US president Barack Obama won a Nobel prize for making speeches, the Nobel academy must surely be watching Macron.
The latest Macron initiative, published in 24 languages, differed more in form than substance from earlier contributions. The Élysée said fellow heads of state and government were informed in advance, but taking a leaf from the populists he combats, Macron gave the impression of going over the heads of his counterparts to speak directly to “the people”.
Watch out, Macron is warning. Europe is in the greatest danger since the second World War. The European elections in May will determine the character of the EU for the next five years.
Macron’s core message is that the EU has given its inhabitants unprecedented peace and prosperity, that Europe alone can protect them against Vladimir Putin’s desire to undermine their democracy, China’s unfair trade practices and the mercurial Donald Trump. National independence without the power to control one’s destiny is not sovereignty, he argues.
Macron struck a more conciliatory note than in the past. He alluded only twice to the illiberal democrats – Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini – with whom he wrestles over the hearts and minds of Europeans. “We cannot let nationalists without solutions exploit the people’s anger,” he argued. Instead of dwelling on the confrontation between his self-styled “progressive” camp and nationalists, he sought to draw citizens into a big tent Europe.
And although Macron described Brexit as the symbol of Europe’s crisis, he was conciliatory towards the UK, asking that it be included on a European Security Council, and predicting that the UK “will find its true place” in the Europe he seeks to build.
The European establishment reacted positively. “Support for Emmanuel Macron’s proposals for a new élan for the European project,” tweeted Charles Michel, the centre right Belgian prime minister. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the EU Commission, welcomed Macron’s “firm commitment to identify and respond to European challenges.”
Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, who is Polish, focused on measures intended to prevent Putin meddling in European elections. “Our first freedom is the democratic freedom to chose our leaders and in every vote, foreign powers attempt to influence our votes,” Tusk said.
Several politicians from the moderate wing of the French conservative party, Les Républicains, also supported Macron. “This is the most complete European project… I support the president’s project without hesitation,” said the former conservative prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.
But Laurent Wauquiez, the leader of the party that Raffarin nominally belongs to, joined the far right in condemning Macron’s initiative. “Emmanuel Macron talks about protecting our continent. And says nothing about mass immigration? Nothing about Islamism?”
Macron’s promise of a “rethink” of the Schengen zone, a common border force and a European asylum office was never going to satisfy the far right, who say immigration policy must be a national prerogative.
Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National issued a three-page diatribe against Macron “governor of the province France” that was nearly as long as Macron’s text. In referring to Macron’s “federalist project”, Le Pen put her finger on one of the main reasons why otherwise pro-European governments, such as Ireland’s, seem reluctant to support Macron.
The French president does not use the words federation or federal. His advisers swear that a federal Europe is the farthest thing from his mind. “He has never envisioned European construction in an institutional way,” says a source at the Élysée. “No one wants that. It scares people.”
But Macron often speaks of convergence and integration. Under the rubric of progress, his letter to the Europeans calls for “convergence rather than competition” in social policy, particularly regarding salaries. Appeals for harmonisation, for example of fiscal policy, are perceived by France’s partners as an attempt to mould Europe in France’s image. Out of self-interest, Ireland is allergic to Macron’s attempt to raise taxes on internet giants.
Macron faces an uphill battle convincing the French and the Europeans of the merits of his cause. The French left accused him of hypocrisy for calling for a social Europe after he liberalised French labour laws. Ecologists note that he called for a European climate bank to finance the transition to renewable energy, but has done little to reduce French greenhouse emissions or wind down the nuclear power industry.
In the eyes of his critics, Macron, the most energetic and courageous leader in Europe, can do nothing right. “He was accused of having abandoned Europe during the gilets jaunes crisis, and now he is accused of using a European initiative as a distraction from domestic problems,” notes an adviser.
Like his nationalist adversaries, Emmanuel Macron is in a sense “antisystem.” But they want to tear down the achievements of the past 60 years and revert to the logic of individual nation states that gave us two world wars in the last century.
Macron is a constructive antisystem leader who wants to tackle the EU’s weaknesses and build on its successes. Earlier European proposals made by Macron, for example a “budgetary instrument” for the euro zone, or a tax on internet advertising, have been the subject of long negotiations and significant compromise. Macron is pragmatic, but determined.
Lara Marlowe is Paris Corespondent