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Macron's vision will split the EU, not unite it

Emmanuel Macron's election to the French presidency has been welcomed as a ray of spring sunlight in the cloudy skies of Brussels. It is believed to be the first salvo of a mainstream counteroffensive against the insurgent forces of populism in Europe. Since his first visit to Berlin last May, Macron made it clear that his European ambitions pass through a revitalisation of the Franco-German relationship, long debilitated by the imbalance between the two historic partners.

In the short term, Macron's relaunch of European integration pursues three objectives: the creation of common European rules on asylum, stronger reciprocity in trade with external partners and new rules to stop the 'social dumping' effect of posted workers from Central and Eastern Europe.

Although Macron's rhetorical virtues managed to present this last demand as impeccably European, in practice it can only amount to further restrictions on the free movement of services and people, two fundamental EU freedoms much resented by French  - and British - public opinion.   

However, we should all wonder whether Macron’s success may not turn out to be as risky for the Union as his failure.

In the long term, the President wants a eurozone budget to promote investments, a eurozone finance minister to administer it and a eurozone parliament to legitimise both. These plans may require not only changes in the EU treaties, which the President has not excluded, but also in Germany's constitution.

A credible French leader with an ambitious European agenda is surely good news for the old continent, whose unity has shown in recent years to be very fragile and in need of new safeguards. However, we should all wonder whether Macron’s success may not turn out to be as risky for the Union as his failure. There are two serious reasons to harbour such fears.

The first is the potentially divisive nature of many French ideas about the future of Europe. Two of them, a weak commitment to the free movement of services and people and a tendency to focus on integrating the eurozone without much attention to the interests of the euro-outs, are particularly problematic.

The former is an old thorn in France’s relationship with the EU, at least since the bogeyman of the ‘Polish plumber’ contributed to its rejection of the constitutional treaty in 2005. Since then, no pro-EU politician in the country has really been able to convincingly defend free movement without adding a plethora of qualifications about ‘social dumping’ and ‘fairness’ that are difficult to digest in Central and Eastern Europe. Emmanuel Macron is no exception here.

The latter stems from the French tradition of economic ‘dirigisme’, which makes the notion of a ‘depoliticized’ currency based on constitutional rules and market discipline incomprehensible to the French way of thinking. Hence the insistent demands for a ‘managed’ currency, one complemented by an economic government responsible for promoting investment and, in the long run, harmonizing social standards in order to prevent, once more, ‘social dumping’ and enforce ‘fair competition’.

Like it or not, Central and Eastern European countries instinctively distrust centralisation, dislike differentiated integration and are especially attached to the Single Market and its four freedoms.

Those are highly divisive ideas that will prove potentially difficult to reconcile with the pursuit of unity among the EU27 – not just the EU19 - after Brexit. Like it or not, Central and Eastern European countries instinctively distrust centralisation, dislike differentiated integration and are especially attached to the Single Market and its four freedoms.

The second reason is the geopolitical implications of France’s ambition to restore the Franco-German axis to its former role as the engine of European integration. French elites have gradually understood that there are structural reasons why Germany has come to play a more central role than France in Europe. Its good economic performance is one of them, and the economic and demographic consequences of reunification are another.

However, the main reason is the geopolitics of the 2004 enlargement: Germany is the pivotal player because it is the guarantor of Central and Eastern Europe’s participation in the European project and because the EU membership of this region has given it a much larger playing ground on which to build its coalitions. This was a momentous change from previous decades: as long as the European project was limited to a small group of Western and Southern European countries, France was inevitably the pivotal partner of Germany.

The most far-sighted French observers have long understood that the Eastern enlargement was bound to make France more marginal and Germany more pivotal in Europe. Mitterand, who was certainly one of them, tried to counter this tendency by proposing to include countries newly freed by the communist yoke in a broad confederation within which the European Community would have retained its inner balance.

Today the only way for France to regain its geopolitical centrality is for the European project to be recentered on its western and southern core. This is well captured by Macron’s plans on the future of Europe, which de facto amounts to de-emphasising the single market, limiting free movement, and investing much political capital on integrating the euro zone.

The most far-sighted French observers have long understood that the Eastern enlargement was bound to make France more marginal and Germany more pivotal in Europe. 

If French demands are taken up by Germany, the risk is that the project will tacitly refocus in a direction that weakens, not strengthens continental unity. Germany's historic mission is to lead the continent towards a model of unity that is sustainable and acceptable to everyone. The adoption of Macron’s agenda implies the exact opposite.