6 March 2019

As a launch to his European Parliament election campaign, on 5 March French President Emmanuel Macron published an op-ed in newspapers across Europe, where he sets out his vision for the EU after Brexit.

This is his most important European  intervention since his Sorbonne speech from September 2017, where he advocated for a more “sovereign, united and democratic” Europe.

This time, Macron chooses a more inclusive approach and addresses himself directly to the public, hoping to reach Europeans and target their concerns. Citing Brexit as a symbol of Europe’s crisis, he outlines proposals categorised into three themes: freedom, protection and progress.

Focus on protection

It becomes clear from the text that the most important pillar is a “Europe that protects,” which also occupied an important part of the Sorbonne speech.

Many of the proposals that Macron mentions have been put on the table before, and have either not materialised or not progressed since 2017. For instance, he calls for a reform of the Schengen area and repeats the need for common European institutions dealing with external border protection and asylum.

But the divergence of opinions on how to reform EU asylum policies has been blocking progress on that front. Many solutions that have been agreed, such as the idea of ‘disembarkation platforms’ from the June 2018 European Council, have been abandoned. Macron also suggests that membership of freedom of movement should be conditional upon accepting asylum seekers, which will inevitably spark opposition from Central and Eastern European states and create further tensions.

On security and defence, Macron wants to set “a clear course” with a treaty outlining obligations on defence spending, cooperation with NATO, and an EU Security Council of which the UK could be part of post-Brexit. This falls in line with his ambition to include the UK into the European Intervention Initiative (E2I) in order to continue cooperation on defence with strategically important third countries. It is also a more balanced vision than the EU’s position in Brexit security and defence negotiations, where up until now the UK has been treated as just another third country. However, the overall proposals are less ambitious than Macron’s previous calls for a “European army.”

As part of protection he also suggests reforming EU competition and trade policy and calls for “penalising or banning businesses that compromise our strategic interests and fundamental values.” French and German Finance Ministers have recently called for a rethink of the EU’s competition regime after Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager rejected a Franco-German rail industry merger. In a recent interview, however, Vestager recognised some space for “a more nuanced and more pragmatic approach” to EU competition policy.

The other two pillars of Macron’s proposals – freedom and progress – are less substantial. Protection against foreign interference in elections, a “social shield” for workers and an EU minimum wage, as well as environmental goals: these are all noble objectives, but they seem to be less of a concern for European citizens at the moment. Moreover, it is unclear how Macron plans a minimum wage being achieved, especially with the previous difficulties in reaching agreement over the EU Posted Workers Directive.

Finally, the French President calls for a Conference for Europe to “propose all the changes our political project needs, which is open even to amending the EU treaties,” and come up with a roadmap for the proposals to become concrete policies. He notes that in this renewed Europe, the UK “will find its true place.”

Surprisingly – or perhaps not – the Eurozone is not mentioned in the text, reflecting the failure to reach an agreement on Macron’s previous wide-ranging reform plans, such as a Eurozone budget. There is also no mention of Germany or the ‘special’ Franco-German relationship as a basis for European unity, also reflecting the difficult road in relations between Paris and Berlin on forging common positions about EU reform.

Overall, Macron’s calls for a Europe where “the people will really take back control of their future” mostly rest on improving the protection pillar. Some of his ideas represent an effort to address citizens’ concerns about migration and competition, but most of them have already been suggested and face important political challenges in their implementation.

Although this time Macron’s proposals seem to strike a more intergovernmental note, he continues to push for more European solutions where there is no agreement on how to move forward.  For instance, a new defence treaty appears to be impossible to agree at the moment, given the divergences between member states on the future of defence integration.

Launching the European election campaign

In this piece, Macron sets out the main issues which will be part of his campaign ahead of European Parliament elections in May. He refers to the nationalist camp which he plans to challenge at the elections, writing,

Retreating into nationalism offers nothing; it is rejection without an alternative. And this is the trap that threatens the whole of Europe: the anger mongers, backed by fake news, promise anything and everything.

His piece sets up May’s European election to be debated upon European issues and proposals for reforming the EU, instead of national issues, as it was in the past. It also builds on Macron’s narrative that the election will be a contest between the pro-EU camp and the populist one.

However, the objective no longer seems to oppose specific politicians such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán or Italy’s right-wing Lega party leader Matteo Salvini, but to point at cleavages that go across countries, at the supranational level. It is about solving differences at the European level, criticising nationalism all across Europe and reflecting on why Brexit happened, as Macron considers Brexit “a lesson for us all.” This is interesting as since the 2016 referendum, leaders have rarely called for reflection on why Brexit happened and what this means for the future of the EU.

At the moment, however, Macron does not have wide-ranging support across Europe. The latest polls suggest that his La République en Marche would come first in France with 25% of votes, while Marine Le Pen’s National Rally comes at 19%. But France is not Europe, and it is unclear to what extent Macron’s proposals resonate around the continent. Nevertheless he is trying, just like in his recent Italian TV interview, to reach out directly to citizens, rather than to heads of governments or EU institutions.

Reactions from across Europe

The op-ed has received moderate, but positive, comments from EU officials, such as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk.

The European Parliament’s Brexit Co-Ordinator Guy Verhofstadt, German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel have also welcomed some of Macron’s proposals. Interestingly, even the Hungarian government has shown support, saying that the proposals are “a good start for a constructive dialogue.”

The German government responded to Macron’s proposals in a statement, “It’s important ahead of the European election for pro-European forces to present their ideas. The German government supports the lively discussion about the orientation of the European Union.”

This was challenged by Munich Security Conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger, who urged Berlin to respond more concretely.

The press, however, is not as positive in its assessment. French daily Le Monde says Macron “wants to become the leader that the EU has forgotten,” while an editorial in Le Figaro notes, “With the lack of concrete and feasible ideas… Macron brings life to his election campaign more than he brings life to Europe.”

In Italy, La Stampa notes that Macron knows that “expectations are rising, and so does the risk of failing.”

Elsewhere, German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung says, “French politicians who want to achieve something differ fundamentally from German politicians who want to achieve something,” adding,

Europe works differently than France…The struggle for a peaceful European community must remain the work of many, not the great individual…The EU will not be helped if it becomes the prestige project of a man with the greatest ambitions.

A piece in Deutsche Welle, however, welcomes the proposals, saying, “Driven by the protesting Yellow Vests and low approval ratings, Emmanuel Macron is now leaping forward. Europe could do that as well.”