France is ready to come back to the centre of the European project, but Germany will need to compromise to make things work.
Dear Berlin, here’s hoping you have recovered from your hangover after Sunday night’s celebrations. After all the political knocks that the EU has suffered over the last year, Emmanuel Macron’s victory was a much needed piece of good news for the European project. Against all expectation, the French people chose a President who was overtly and unashamedly pro–EU, committed to deeper Eurozone integration and a global Europe.
This must be a relief for Berlin. It must have been lonely out in front, carrying the EU forward alone. ECFR’s Scorecard has tracked France’s steady withdrawal from the Franco-German leadership duo on foreign policy since 2010. Throughout the financial crisis, the Eurozone crisis, and the refugee crisis, you were increasingly left alone in carrying the EU baby. Now, Macron’s victory promises to turn this trend around, and put France back at the centre of European decision-making to create ‘Une Europe a la hauteur de nos esperances’: a Europe that lives up to our hopes.
The wording here is important: Macron’s promise was to reform the EU. His regular appearances in front of the EU flag were a commitment to the ideals and the potential of the EU – not necessarily to its current form. He has promised to fight for a level fiscal playing field in the EU, and make the Digital and Energy unions a reality. And he has demanded more financial scope to invest in France’s public services, and that the Eurozone architecture needs to be strengthened with its own Economics and Finance Minister and a common investment budget.
Macron’s formidable challenge now is to deliver on his promises. As a first step, he will need to gain a majority that he can work with in the June legislative elections. Germany can help him do this by showing itself to be open to France’s reengagement as a force which shapes the EU, not a country which is shaped by the EU. Marine Le Pen’s assertion in last week’s TV debate that if Macron wins, Merkel will govern France, struck hard.
Although Macron’s victory was decisive, only a minority of French voters feel like they were on the winning side in this election. And though it is one among many, the EU is an important issue which divides France. In the first round of the presidential election – in which people tend to vote with their convictions – over 50 percent of voters chose a candidate who was to some degree anti-Europe, or against some high profile EU policies. Some favoured pulling France out of the EU altogether (Marine Le Pen), others advocated revisiting France’s strategic alliances (Jean Luc Mélenchon) or put important EU policies, such as sanctions on Russia, into serious question (Francois Fillon). Many of those voters now feel angry that, in the end, they had to back Macron.
Germany should show itself in listening mode on Macron’s proposals, and allow France to visibly lead on this discussion.
Republican supporters feel put out that Macron ‘stole’ an election that should have been theirs, and see him as little more than Francois Hollande’s heir; La France Insoumise supporters feel that Macron’s outsider image is just a façade, and that he is in hock to the big banks, with no genuine interest in making France ‘la chance pour tous’; the Parti Socialiste is afraid that Macron’s creation of En Marche was the final nail in the coffin of their already crumbling party.
France is now hugely divided, with large parts of the population frustrated by the toll that economic stagnation takes on their daily lives. When Macron says he wants to be ‘President pour tous’, this may be his wish, but it is also a necessity. If the country is to move forward, Macron will have to build a durable coalition to achieve reforms to the labour market, to the benefit system, and to public services – reforms that go far beyond what previous administrations have managed.
This is where you come in, Berlin. When Merkel says that Macron carries the hopes of many across Europe, she has to be aware that he can only do this if the EU provides a supportive framework. ‘Flexible Europe’ needs to become more than a buzz word, giving France the impression that its voice is being heard.
Particularly on Eurozone reform, this will matter. So far, Macron’s demands for a Eurozone budget – overseen by a Eurozone minister for economy and finance, and voted in by a Eurozone parliament – have found little favour in Berlin. Merkel’s government has been sceptical of further Eurozone integration in this direction, particularly regarding the mutualisation of debt through Eurobonds. Recently, however, there have been some indications from Wolfgang’s Schauble’s team that the idea of a Eurozone budget might have more traction.
It would play well in France – and indeed across much of the EU – if Germany showed itself in listening mode on Macron’s proposals, and even allowed France to visibly lead on this discussion. Germany’s positioning vis a vis France, ideally as an equal partner rather than mentor, will play a critical role in how Macron is viewed as a statesman and representative of French interests. If Berlin wants to share the burden of leadership, it needs to help Paris regain its place.