LONDON — As European leaders were congratulating themselves and British leader Theresa May this past weekend on reaching a tentative deal for the U.K. to leave the European Union, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a…
LONDON — As European leaders were congratulating themselves and British leader Theresa May this past weekend on reaching a tentative deal for the U.K. to leave the European Union, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a preview of how difficult the looming negotiations will be to establish the continent’s new relationship with Britain.
The French leader said that if the U.K. is unwilling to reach agreement with the EU on a reciprocal fishing agreement then finding consensus on larger trade deals will be difficult.
The message stood out as much for who was giving it as its blunt tone. And it followed Macron’s speech earlier this month before the German Bundestag, where he made a pitch for France and Germany to jointly push through his agenda for deeper integration within the EU as the best way to champion liberal democratic values and push back against the growing wave of support for populist parties of the far-right and left.
Macron’s audience included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who for years has been considered the de facto “leader” of the 28-member EU, but is now politically wounded and heading for retirement. Merkel’s pending exit will leave a leadership void in Europe, and Macron appears intent on filling it.
“I don’t know of any French president who would not want to be leader of Europe, so that’s a given,” says Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris. Adds Philippe Marliere, a professor of French and European politics at University College London: “It would be a safe bet he thinks this is a window of opportunity to have an impact on the course Europe will take.”
Macron is the logical heir apparent. The Franco-German alliance within the EU has been the driving political force within the bloc for decades. And while Macron has been president for only two years, he’s proved a credible player on the international stage, recently jousting with President Donald Trump over the issue of nationalism. Whoever ends up replacing Merkel as chancellor will likely be a neophyte to EU and global politics, leaving Macron appearing as an elder statesman.
Nevertheless, Macron faces big hurdles that could complicate a rise to power in Europe. His popularity in France is on the skids. And the two headline planks of his EU reform agenda — an EU army, and overhauling the eurozone (the 19 EU countries that share the euro) — have received only lukewarm support in Germany, the dominant member of the alliance thanks to its economic power. Moreover, critics say Macron’s policy proposals don’t truly address the issues that are fueling nationalist parties in Europe.
Macron, 40, was elected in July 2016 with widespread support after forming his own centrist party, En Marche!, and outmaneuvering France’s two main parties, the Republicans and Socialists, as well as the relatively strong far-right National Front (now called National Rally).
But many French voters now consider him too conservative and out of touch with low-paid workers. His popularity has slumped to below 30 percent in recent polls. Moreover, for nearly two weeks now, France has been roiled by so-called Yellow Vest demonstrations — large, leaderless grassroots protests, that in some instances have turned violent, over new taxes that have caused fuel prices to soar. This past weekend, the protests in Paris took on a decidedly anti-Macron tone.
Macron’s prescription to address the populism that’s become rampant across Europe is an agenda of bold reform that enshrines EU unity, Lafont Rapnouil says. “His idea is, you have to come up with big deals and deliver on them, upset the status quo and bring in reforms.” He initially set out his agenda 14 months ago. But it was swept aside by a tsunami of crises that broke across Europe: the huge influx of migrants that swamped Europe in 2016, several major terrorist attacks, and Britain’s decision to leave the EU.
Macron also counted on partnering with Merkel, with whom he has bonded, to push for more EU integration. But that plan was upset in September 2017, when Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union party failed to win a majority. It took her until last March to form a government, and the subsequent domestic turmoil left her little time to tend to EU matters.
This fall, the CDU performed badly in regional elections, and Merkel stepped down as party leader, though she pledged to fulfill her term as chancellor until 2021. But pressure is building on her to step aside sooner, and a poll last week found that 62 percent of Germans want her to resign her chancellorship after the new year.
Even if Merkel manages to remain in power, it’s unlikely she’ll focus much attention on the EU, and will instead continue to tend to domestic issues. And that’s a problem for Macron’s aspirations, Marliere says. “Together, France and Germany can do a lot, but one without the other often leads to stagnation.”
And while Merkel has endorsed Macron’s reforms, she’s done so tepidly.
For instance, Merkel agreed with Macron’s argument that there’s a need for an EU army so that Europe is less reliant on the U.S. for defense. But she also called it a “long term” goal. Within the EU, there’s not much support for the idea. Some critics say it would undermine NATO rather than complement it by siphoning off euros from members’ already tight defense budgets.
Merkel also backed Macron’s call to strengthen the eurozone, mainly by creating its own budget, a stabilization fund to bail out member states that get into economic trouble. But the joint proposal hammered out by Paris and Berlin ahead of the upcoming Dec. 13-14 European Council summit is a much watered down version of Macron’s original plan. And, at Germany’s insistence, funds would only go to countries who maintain balanced budgets — so it would continue to enforce austerity budgeting during downturns.
But populists have won support by leveraging public dissatisfaction over the poor economic results of austerity in many EU countries. Ongoing sluggish growth, high jobless rates and slashed public services have allowed far-right parties to falsely blame the economic malaise on immigrants. Accordingly, Marliere says, it’s unlikely Macron’s reforms will quell populist sentiment, because to the working poor they sound like more of the same “and they aren’t seeing any benefits.”
Even if Macron eventually emerges as Europe’s leader, it may not help him at home “where he is deeply unpopular for personal, political and policy reasons,” Marliere says. Being seen as the EU’s top head of state “doesn’t really pay off domestically.”