French President Emmanuel Macron’s “letter to the citizens” laid out to the more than 500 million people of the European Union his recipe for what Macron dramatically labelled a new “European Renaissance”.
Just a few weeks before the UK is set to forever change its relationship with the EU, and only two months before European citizens go to the polls for parliamentary elections, Macron, as the head of the second most powerful country in Europe, attempted to articulate a framework for the bloc that left national identities, as well as traditional groupings and alliances, on the side. As their mandate quickly coming to an end, the lame duck leaders of EU institutions, including European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council president Donald Tusk, lined up behind Macron on many of hi key points, saying they were “totally” supportive of the French president’s vision when it came to the importance of strengthening Europe’s democratic freedoms.
Particularly at a time when those core Western values are being threatened by malign “anti-European” outside forces who are determined to influence electoral process both inside and outside the EU.
Juncker’s take on Macron’s new ‘electoral manifesto’ portrayed it as an “important contribution to the European debate”. The former’s reaction to Macron’s declaration included both praise as well as a reminded that much of what Macron proposed had “already been proposed” or was “being implemented”, but that the crux of what Macron was proposing was fully compatible with the Commission’s own vision for the EU.
“I fully support his way of thinking when he says, and I quote, ‘Our first freedom is democratic freedom: the freedom to choose our leaders as foreign powers seek to influence our votes at every election.’ There are external anti-European forces, which are seeking – openly or secretly – to influence the democratic choices of Europeans, as was the case with Brexit and a number of election campaigns across Europe. And it may again be the case with the European elections in May,” Tusk said before adding, “I am calling on all those who care about the EU to cooperate closely during and after the European elections. Do not allow political parties that are funded by external forces, hostile to Europe, to decide key priorities for the EU, particularly on the new leadership of the European institutions. We cannot wait for the ‘renaissance of Europe’.
Charles Michel, Belgium’s prime minister, has also voiced support for some of the proposals put forward by Macron, saying “his proposals correspond with my own views regarding several key issues, in particular, Emmanuel Macron’s statement in support of a [united] Europe which defends freedom and democracy”.
EU’s power struggles
A key takeaway in Macron’s manifest was that he no longer put a heavy emphasis on the Franco-German alliance, the power-couple of the bloc, but instead aimed to generate new dynamics that would further advance the Union.
His counterpart in that duo, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is, despite her still robust popularity, roughly in the same boat as the members of the outgoing Commission. No longer the driving force of either European of German domestic and foreign policy, Merkel’s relegation to the sidelines has allowed Macros to emerge as a new powerbroker at a time when the leadership in the bloc is in flux
If the EU would like to strengthen the Spitzenkandidat process to choose a party leader and provide greater democratic legitimacy for its candidates and keep populists’ voices from spreading beyond where they have already become a force, then the bloc will have to come to the realization that the task of leading the European Union through what will be a trying period will have to be handed over to a leader like Macron or the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte, Tusk’s most-likely successor.
Concentric cycles no more
Macron’s approach is a dramatic move away from the classic EU format of buffers, cycles and zones of cooperation with Germany and France as its centre. Instead, Macron appears to have understood that Eastern European countries led by Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia are beginning to form their own internal bloc whose policies are often in direct contrast to those of either Paris or Berlin, and even Brussels. Key questions, and in some cases deep concerns, still remain as to how much of an influence the former Eastern Bloc countries can have on the EU institutions when it appears that their Eurosceptic governments are far from inclined to take directives from the bloc’s traditional power bases.
The consolidation of new, internal alliances within the EU has also spread to other areas of the bloc. In what is being described as a ‘neo-Hanseatic League’ – a reference to the commercial and military confederation of merchant guilds and market towns that dominated northwestern Europe and parts of Scandinavia in the late Middle Ages – Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and Sweden have begun to revive their strong historic alliance through their commitment to financial liberalism.
Macron knows that the former Warsaw Pact nations and this still forming New Hanseatic League need to create a regional dialogue on a variety of questions that affecting each of the countries involved. This extends to the 12 members of the EU’s so-called Three Seas Initiative which connections the nations that are closest to or border the Adriatic, Baltic, and Black Seas. Though it remains a flexible and somewhat controversial political platform after first being dreamt up by Poland and Croatia, it remains a key arena to promote further integration for the EU’s eastern members and a vital source for Western Europe’s traditional powerbases to engage with Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia as it hope to stem the populist/nationalist tide that has emerged in many of those countries.
Macron, through his manifesto, has shown that he understands this. He appears to have recognised that Europe’s future will be tied to building a consensus amongst these countries and the European institutions in order to enact the essential proposals and vital reforms that the bloc so desperately needs to reinvigorate itself for the coming decade.
This part of Macron’s strategy – a move to the centre-right of the political spectrum – cannot come as a complete surprise to those who have been tracking his political life over the past three years. Macron’s rise to the height of French politics was based on his rejection of both the traditional left-right split, which largely appealed to France’s centre-left voters, but Macron has repeatedly shown his willingness to appeal to and gain support from voters on the right.
The support from the right could be in question, however, after Macron expressed hi desire to rethink one of the EU’s founding principles – the freedom of movement within the Schengen Zone. In his address, Macron contended that, “No community can create a sense of belonging if it does not have bounds that it protects,” and called for “a common border force and a European asylum office” to oversee internal security.
With this statement, Macron is risking being the subject of significant pushback from various sectors of European society – whether from the left and the right, as well as the populists – due to the prevailing mood in the EU which has been characterised by an increased concern over national border security and illegal migration over the last several years.
‘L’Europe c’est moi’
The endorsement of Macron’s proposals was not universal. The reaction from Germany was tempered with both praise and outright hostility to some of the plans in Macron’s declaration. Berlin openly opposed his industrial policy ideas, but agreed that the debates his letter would likely facilitate would provided a valuable “boost” to the “EU discussion” ahead of the May elections.
Despite the criticism from France’s traditional partner in the European project, Macron deserves praise for stepping outside the usual norms of communication for a European national leader. By channeling his inner Charles De Gaulle, he has put himself at the forefront of the debate over where the EU is headed under a new regime in the Commission and as the bloc attempts to navigate the uncharted waters of its post-Brexit existence.
By taking on the leftists and right-wing reactionaries, and the violent hooligans of Yellow Vest movement, as well as the growing number of anti-EU demagogues in his own country, Macron is to be resoundingly applauded. Any attempt to shower him with disdain or to make him the object of scorn is misguided. But much like the often complicated legacy of De Gaulle, it remains to be seen if this ‘European Renaissance’ that Macron so passionately presented to the world is one that becomes the basis for a new set of European ideals in the coming decades, or if it will remain Macron’s idea of what Europe should be.