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Will the EU become en marche?

The tribune of Emmanuel Macron, President of France, may represent the beginning of a new era in the history of the EU. President Macron has decided to engage his legitimacy by outlining his vision for the future of Europe. For the first time in the history of the EU, one of the key European leaders addressed a message to all European citizens – translating his call for renewal into 23 languages and publishing it in main media outlets. In his tribune to European citizens, Macron, chose powerful words to draw attention to the challenging situation facing  the European Union. However, according to the French President, this situation should not be a fatality as these challenges also offer the opportunity “for European renewal”. An offer of transferring the power of France as a key international military and diplomatic player into the EU level constitutes a key pillar of such renewal.  This powerful transnational message should increase his popularity both at the EU and at the domestic level. Nevertheless, these days in Europe finding itself in pre-election fever,  it is difficult to conclude if  Macron’s tribune  is going to lead to a great leap of EU integration.

Macron formulated  specific propositions around a three pillar formula called “freedom, protection, progress”. Nevertheless, only a few of them seem to be applicable in a short term perspective. It is the case for the “ban of the funding of European political parties by foreign powers” or the “European food safety force” which are ideas defended by most  European political forces . However, many ideas – despite some of them being potentially interesting – lack sufficient details to be considered as feasible in the short term. With his idea of a treaty on defence and security, President Macron proves that he has diminished his previous ambitions in this domain (he called for a common strategic culture and a European Army in 2017). However, even this more moderate proposal might be difficult  to implement as Europeans are considerably divided on the future developments of European defence and its implications on the EU-NATO relationship. Indeed, a significant  number of countries, notably from Central and Eastern Europe, interpret European suggestions in defence and security as potential threats for future US military involvement and presence in Europe. Finally, some other ideas appear purely utopian for the time being such as the “social shield” or a complete revision of the “Schengen Treaty,” as Member States have proven in recent years to have conflicting strategies and agendas on these issues. Indeed, some countries refuse a harmonisation of social  standards as it would represent a constraint on the European liberal economic system (see for instance, a rather sceptical reaction  from PM Kunz and CDU leader Kramp-Karrenbauer to Macron’s initiative) while some others reject it out of hand  as it would considerably reduce their economic attractiveness (traditional position of Poland and Hungary).

Broadly speaking, the tribune indicates a possible profound change in the EU institutional setup. Macron praises a restructuring of the EU into a multi-speed Union as it represents a tangible solution to make progress by bypassing unavoidable disagreements between Member States. Here, Emmanuel Macron defends an old vision which had already been discussed and theorized – recently illustrated by a French-German-English financial mechanism with Iran and a French-German initiative on GAFAs’ taxation. This mode of functioning is heavily criticized by several Central and European Member States which interpret it as a threat to European cohesion. In fact, these countries are historically afraid to be relegated into  the margins  of the EU. Macron’s enterprise is also an implicit call for a larger French influence in the EU. Indeed, the current political situation in Germany (transition of power in the CDU accompanied by internal competition and the unprecedented decline of ruling Social Democrats) and the heated debate around European defence act as a window of opportunity for France. Germany has taken  advantage of its economic power to affirm its leadership within the EU,  so France would like to count on its military and diplomatic powers. This  argument is  reinforced by Macron’s  vague mention of a “common destiny” with the African continent – the French “domain of influence”. As demonstrated  by important divergences on PESCO and by a proposal  to replace the French permanent seat at the UN Security Council by a European one, Germany is looking at these French initiatives concerning foreign policy quite unfavourably. However, despite tensions, France and Germany recently signed the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (January 2019) and are expected to intensify  cooperation – the principal driving force of the EU – and to reinforce their dual leadership in  the EU.

Finally, the  key issue of political polarisation within European societies does not appear  to be addressed in this letter. Macron is ambiguous regarding his position towards Eurosceptical forces as he alternates between openness – acknowledging that mistakes have been done and that a frank dialogue is needed (including a potential reshuffling of the treaties) – and firmness – characterising nationalist forces as a “trap”  which call for “rejection” without “solution”. Besides nationalist forces, he also criticizes mainstream political forces for their “resignation”, and place his political party and his European allies (Ciudadanos, etc.) as the only viable solution for a pioneering and efficient political project. This strategy of third choice seems to be successful as polls expect a victory for La République en Marche in France (around 25% of the votes, around 25 seats expected at the EU Parliament). At the same time , the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Macron’s potential allies, will enjoy a similar trend  as they are supposed to win almost 95 seats according to the last polls (+ 5% in comparison to last elections). Two other trends  are the rise  or the upholding of Eurosceptical forces (for instance, the surge of support for Italian far right Lega currently surpassing 35%. It may turn  Lega into the largest representation among all political forces in the EP)   and the weakening of mainstream political parties even if they remain the two most important political parties (-6% for the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats and -3% for the European People’s Party). These projected results seem to confirm an increasing polarisation between pro-EU and anti-EU forces. The recent assassination of Polish mayor Paweł Adamowicz, or the diplomatic “violence” used by Lega,  or the and Cinque Stare and  their relations with France could be a harbinger  of the rise  of political tensions within European societies and between Member States in coming years.

Assessing Macron’s tribune for European renewal is a difficult task as it is impossible to conclude if it is an element of the LREM European elections campaign or a strategic vision on the future of Europe. The application or the non-application of these proposals  will certainly be influenced by the results of European elections as they will decide the balance  of power between liberals, socialists, conservatives and Eurosceptics forces. Some scenarios such as the exclusion of Viktor Orban (and of his allies) from the EPP, the accession  of Lega  to the European Conservatives and Reformists group could also have important consequences, turning into the establishment of close Italian-Polish cooperation countering the German-French tandem.  In the same manner, some future national elections could have some impact on the short/mid-term future of EU politics (Poland in 2019, possible snap elections in Italy in the following months).

Romain Lequiniou – Junior Analyst