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Could Macron be the change EU needs?

June 18, 2017

 

Pro-European voices all sighed in relief on Sunday May 7th when Emmanuel Macron has beaten the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen of the National Front the the French presidential election runoff. Mr Macron, who have been sworn into office a week after electing, replacing the very unpopular outgoing socialist president Francois Hollande has built his agenda on a very pro-European stance. However, in the weeks leading up to the election, he started using an increasingly critical and reformist rhetoric towards the European Union, saying that the current situation is neither desirable nor sustainable. This has been going through the minds of many in the recent times and those people are now putting their faith into Mr Macron and his fresh, innovative attitude to restart the engine of the European integration on the axis between Paris and Berlin and breath life into the European project that has been stalled in the recent years, plagued by the loss of confidence and trustworthiness from its own citizens in a string of lost referenda on treaties, opt-outs from European policies, Brexit referendum and finally a weak, disunited and divisive response to the migration crisis that fueled the (now-stopped) rise of populist movements in Europe.

 

Mr Macron's election manifesto and his interactions with media give a somewhat clear outline of how he wants to reform the Union, although the "roadmap" he pledged to unveil in cooperation with Angela Merkel is still in the making. Mr Macron is likely to push for further integration into the European structure, mainly in terms of defense as Nato seems to have become less reliable. More cooperation on intelligence sharing, common military spending and a comprehensive immigration and border protection strategy are the key issues on the agenda.

Mr Macron also spoke against mutualizing the existing Euro debt, casting some shadows over the future shape of the incomplete but desperately needed fiscal union. On the other hand, he will likely be pushing for less austerity-driven policies and avoiding reimposing any internal borders in the EU. All that while seeking somewhat protectionist measures on the EU level, fighting against dumping, promoting the "buy European" policy and reciprocally limiting foreign public procurement in Europe.

As for the Eurozone reform, Macron seems to favour having an Eurozone finance and budget ministers along with an elected parliament for the currency bloc, both ideas that are viewed with scepticism in Berlin, his main partner for the EU reform, although the latter seemed to have gained some ground recently. The Franco-German relationship has cooled in the recent years, with France's feeble growth and subsequent breaking of the EU fiscal rules, and the German forcing of the fiscal compact and running a large current account surplus. There is also a disagreement on the Euro bond issuance. This short quotation from Financial Times outlines the issue clearly:

 

"Still, this does not mean that the French and German economies are aligned. Germany had a current account surplus of 8.7 per cent last year, which the commission expects to remain over 8 per cent for the next two years. France has a current account deficit of 2.3 per cent, forecast to rise to 2.7 per cent by 2018. The trajectory of German public sector debt to GDP is towards 60 per cent by the end of the decade. French debt is just under 100 per cent, with no visible tendency to decline. These numbers tell the story of what needs to happen: France has to consolidate while Germany needs to expand."

https://www.ft.com/content/da3404fc-3365-11e7-bce4-9023f8c0fd2e

 

The rebuilding of the mutual trust seems to be heading a good way though, since Mr Macron's visit in Berlin seemed to have stricken an accord with both Chancellor Merkel and finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Any specific action will be postponed after the German Bundestag election this Autumn.

 

 

Finally, Mr Macron has also praised the plan of the reallocation of the existing 73 British seats in the European Parliament after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, which consists of replacing the seats with a pan-European constituency list in the 2019 election.

 

But what is perhaps even more crucial than all written above is that Mr Macron does not shy away from leadership. His way of handling Donald Trump during the Nato summit in Brussels was previously unseen by any other national leader - Macron stood his ground, he was not afraid to speak in direct terms on global security, free trade or climate change and even won the infamous "handshake battle", at least in the eyes of the public. He also staged a lone walk-up to the Nato leaders at the summit, saluting Angela Merkel and snubbing Trump by firstly greeting several other heads of state.

(It is also worth mentioning that Macron's remarks on the handshake to French newspaper are the only direct interaction the French president had with the press since his election. He seems to be keeping a very restraint attitude of few words, prefer to be clouded in the mystery of his strength and composure, only resorting to brief statements and avoiding off-topic questions - an attitude that might change after the Assembly elections in France).

 

His boldness and willingness to lead and to fill up the space the US seems to be leaving in international affairs was also showcased just a few days ago, when he hosted Russian president Vladimir Putin in Paris. While showing that he is open to compromise and to improve the strained relationship with Russia, he was strong and principled in his demands and positions. What's more, as a first Western politician he openly criticized Putin for the atrocities done on homosexuals in Chechnya during a joint press conference. Mr Macron also directly attacked the Russian hacking involvement in trying to sway the elections in Western countries in the last months, with France being no exception (Macron's campaign emails were stolen and published just before the second round).

 

Finally, on the eve of the announcement of Donald Trump that the US would be pulling out of the Paris Agreement, it was again Emmanuel Macron who addressed the whole world (in English) to assure them that other countries and European powers will stick to the limits and pledges agreed in the treaty and invited scientists from the world to cooperate on developing cleaner sources of energy and contributing to sustainable development. All of this while openly mocking Trump's campaign slogan by stating "Make our planet great again".

 

 

Guy Verhofstadt often despaired in the past years that the EU and the whole project of European integration is lacking strong, charismatic leaders who would be able to reignite the lost enthusiasm.  Similar thoughts were shared by Francis Fukuyama, who lamented at the lack of the radical and strong support for the liberal values and progressivism in today's world, which seemed to be sliding more and more back into realpolitik of the 80s and 90s. It is still very early to say and we will have to wait at least a few more months until the Assembly elections in France to precisely evaluate the situation, but it seems that the EU needed someone like Emmanuel Macron very much and now it got him. His main contribution could very well be something else than reforming France's labour market or finding consensus in the European Council. It could be reinvigorating the whole process of European integration and, for the first time ever, laying the firm foundation of European leadership in the global scale as a coherent, strong and unified bloc rather than a disorganized group of countries. Macron could very well end up being the true follower of the recently deceased Helmut Kohl, a champion of united Europe and a vocal opponent to the constant compromises and opt-outs. It will be a long, hard road for the young French president but so far, we have every reason to stay hopeful. He was elected in a stark contrast with his opponent and with a direct mandate for the EU reform. Now he just has to do it.

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