Early April’s European Union summit on Britain’s exit from the bloc may have looked like a unique case of French President Emmanuel Macron finding himself extremely isolated in Europe. Rather, it provided further evidence that his European strategy needs a profound rethink.
Two years ago, Macron took France and Europe by storm. His ascension, on a staunchly pro-EU platform, opened the door to potentially momentous changes in region. Britain’s vote to leave, the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, and the failed 2005 French and Dutch referendums on the EU constitution project had already made clear that institutional reforms were needed. Macron at first set out a bold vision, but that ambition has waned. His European strategy contained important flaws, and he made mistakes in trying to deliver it.
In line with French diplomatic tradition, Macron thought the key to turning Europe around was to prioritise the Franco-German relationship. He sought to prove a commitment to fiscal rectitude and economic reforms, even though EU fiscal rules were inept and impossible to meet (France will breach the 3% deficit rule this year), but German scepticism was impossible to overcome. Obsessing with Franco-German bilateralism proved unhelpful, because it ignored the profound changes that had taken place in the last decade, both in Germany and in Europe.
Limiting his strategy to securing a deal with the German chancellor relied on the belief that European negotiations were ‘Chefsache’ – of such importance that only Europe’s bosses could resolve them. It reflected a concept of power and influence rooted in France’s centralised presidential system. Germany’s political culture, however, depends on party coalitions and gives trade unions, business leaders, thinktanks and civil society a central role. Even if you set aside Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cautiousness, there was no chance she would take a leap outside Germany’s comfort zone without a push from German opinion-formers. Yet Macron failed to engage, let alone convince, them.
When Macron did secure Franco-German agreements, they faced swift opposition from the rest of the EU. Agreeing on paper to a euro area budget and a move towards macroeconomic stability (the June 2018 Franco-German ‘Meseberg declaration’) did take diplomatic prowess. But it was immediately rebuffed by a Dutch-led coalition and was never agreed by the European Council. This illustrated how the euro crisis, EU enlargement and Brexit had profoundly changed Europe’s internal dynamics, upending the notion of a Franco-German alliance capable of rallying others.
While new coalitions like central Europe’s Visegrád group and the Hanseatic League initiated by the Netherlands emerged within the EU, Macron failed to organise his own grouping. He didn’t respond to the reality that European politics had become fundamentally transnational. While there was keen interest in his République En Marche movement’s pledge to ‘Europeanise’ itself, he repeatedly stuck to bilateral negotiations at the expense of a non-partisan, cross-border alliance that could have shaken Germany’s dominance over EU politics.
His August 2017 tour of central Europe focused on getting separate governments to agree to his plans for cosmetic changes to EU rules for posted workers (those sent by an employer to work in another member state on a temporary basis). But little effort was put into building durable ties with liberal political forces. After Italy’s traumatic March 2018 elections, Macron kept thinking Matteo Renzi, the marginalised former prime minister, was a key interlocutor, and failed to support President Sergio Mattarella’s calls to form a governing coalition that would have excluded the far-right League and offered France a much more reliable partner.
In Spain, while pretending to speak with every progressive and pro-European force, Macron’s REM sealed an exclusive relationship with the centre-right Citizens party, instead of turning Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his Socialist Workers’ party into the allies they might have been.
When Macron finally did decide to reach out to European citizens with his ‘renaissance’ call, it was too late. Europe’s leaders had lost confidence in his sincerity, its citizens had moved on, and its parties had solidified their allegiances.
This means the upcoming EU elections won’t bring about the change many hoped to see in 2017. Macron will have little choice but to join the centrist and liberal group in the European Parliament. Once a beacon of hope for change, the president risks turning into a junior coalition partner in the management of a status quo in Europe.
Such mistakes could have been avoided if Macron had genuinely embraced transnational politics, engaged with European civil society and spent time exporting his calls for renewal. But that would have required a sincere belief in horizontal, bottom-up politics.
Macron has missed his chance to secure a leadership position in Europe and be seen as a credible agent of change. This wouldn’t have happened if he’d earlier on accepted some friction in the Franco-German relationship – for example, by challenging European fiscal rules or blocking the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia (the move would have earned him tremendous support in southern and eastern Europe). One opportunity he could still seize would be to refuse to back Germany and its scandal-ridden car industry in the tariffs row with the US. That could yet be a turning point.
So far, Macron’s ill-judged focus on those perceived bilateral interests has taken precedence over his transformation agenda. That has cost him and the European project dearly. He must revamp his strategy.
Shahin Vallée is Senior Economist at Soros Fund Management, and was an Adviser to Emmanuel Macron when the now-President was France’s Economy Minister.