Why all of Europe has a stake in Macron’s presidency

World View: French leader’s bold initiative may drive the next phase of the EU

French president Emmanuel Macron gives a statement at the Élysée Palace in Paris, France. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/EPA

French president Emmanuel Macron gives a statement at the Élysée Palace in Paris, France. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/EPA

 

When French presidents talk about Europe, their message often makes more sense if you substitute every reference to “European Union” with “France”.

Whereas for Germany the European project was about postwar redemption, for the Parisian elite, as far back as the de Gaulle era, it was chiefly a vehicle for amplifying France’s voice and grandeur.

Latterly, when EU enlargement and relative economic decline made it more difficult for that voice to be heard, the EU also became a canvas on which French leaders – in common with their counterparts across the continent – could project their own fears and failures. But that first, foundational idea retains a certain hold in Paris.

Listening to Emmanuel Macron’s big speech on Europe two weeks ago, it was tempting to hear his critique of an EU that was “too weak, too slow, too inefficient” as a commentary on the state he now runs. And to see his solution – closer integration – as a means of imposing from outside radical changes on France that no French leader could get away with implementing from within.

Macron certainly spoke with a domestic audience in mind. His emphasis on solidarity and Europe’s social dimension was directed at those left-wing voters, some of them lost to the Front National, who have long felt disillusioned with the EU. But in important ways his speech broke with French convention.

It was a sweeping, rousing, integrationist manifesto, invoking the vision of the EU’s founding fathers in laying out the case for more security and defence co-operation, a digital union, pan-European electoral lists, European universities, a European carbon tax and much else.

The speech included proposals that have long been on French wishlists – tax harmonisation and a bulked-up euro zone, for example – but elsewhere, such as in the call for a common asylum policy and the relegation of national sovereignty to the status of outdated relic, he was saying things that are anathema to a large and vocal French constituency.

Macron’s position appears to be driven by three insights. The first, which he learned in his successful election campaign, is that, rather than pander to the populists who have set the tone of French debate on the EU for more than a decade, a convincing leader can be rewarded for being confidently, unapologetically outward-looking.

The second is that the old Gaullist truism still holds: France needs the EU. Nicolas Sarkozy once remarked that it took him a few years as president to realise he could achieve much more as leader of a continental bloc, in tandem with Angela Merkel, than of a mid-sized state.

Narcissism

Macron has Sarkozy’s narcissism, but he’s the more thoughtful – and therefore substantial – politician. He already grasps what dawned slowly on Sarkozy. And whereas Sarko was cowed by the threat on his right flank, Macron treats Marine Le Pen as a useful foil in making his upbeat case for internationalism.

Third, on the EU as an idea, Macron appears to be the first true believer in the Élysée since François Mitterrand 30 years ago.

The Sorbonne speech was not short of substance, but fundamentally it was an emotional appeal of the sort that’s hard to fake.

Macron’s bold initiative coincided with a bruising election for Merkel in Germany, prompting headline-writers to proclaim a changing of the guard among Europe’s figureheads.

It’s true that Merkel’s aura will fade the closer she comes to stepping down, and her Wikipedia-style oratory hardly compares with Macron’s florid prose, but the idea is wildly overcooked. As the leader of Europe’s richest state, and the longest-serving of the bloc’s leaders, Merkel’s position as the person to whom all others defer is unassailable.

But the idea also misses the point. The Franco-German axis is symbiotic – unless Berlin and Paris act together, nothing much can be achieved. The assumption has been that Brexit will strengthen that axis. Already the signs point to that having happened.

The need for Franco-German agreement is one reason why much of what Macron proposed at the Sorbonne may never happen. Another reason is that the EU, even without the recalcitrant Brits, remains deeply divided about the way forward.

But discount Macron’s ideas at your peril. Every major integrationist leap in the EU’s history can be traced back to some speech or other by a European leader. And those leaps have often emerged from setbacks far less consequential than the crises that have consumed the bloc in recent times.

Macron will also be helped by the fact that there is so much riding on his own fate. His election was widely greeted as proof that the populist wave could be resisted, but the forces behind that wave have not gone away. A Macron presidency that fails is one of the wildcards on the European horizon.

Fear of what might follow means all EU leaders, divided though they may be on so much else, all share a stake in the French president’s success.

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