Why Emmanuel Macron’s EU Policy Keeps Failing
The opportunity for a bold leap in European integration is probably more favorable today than it has been ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall. France has reelected Emmanuel Macron, arguably its most pro-European president ever. After 16 years of Merkelism, Germany is now led by a coalition that has vowed to turn Europe into a federal state. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Denmark promptly ended its opt-out from the European Union’s common defense policy. And Poland, once a European renegade, sees more clearly than ever what it could lose from Europe’s enfeeblement. The geopolitical circumstances are particularly conducive to profound changes.
The COVID-19 crisis has made clear to Europe its international economic dependency and the need for solidarity; the war of aggression in Ukraine is creating a feeling of unity not experienced since the euro crisis; and growing fears over the United States drifting toward another Trump-like president is finally waking Europeans up to the reality of their despondency.
Yet, despite this formidable alignment of stars, Europe appears in limbo. The EU has not fully digested the departure of the United Kingdom and established a new relationship with London; it remains divided over the scope and speed of its enlargement; and it is still unsure about whether the bold fiscal intervention delivered during the COVID-19 crisis was the first step of Europe’s own brand of fiscal federalism or whether it was a one-off. Brussels is still battling with Hungary over its violations of the rule of law, facing instability in the Balkans, and importantly it remains burdened by European treaties that are an obstacle to charting common approaches in critical areas such as energy, health, fiscal policy, and defense.
Macron regaled audiences with pro-European rhetoric throughout his first term, but it has not yet translated into major concrete policy successes.
Following France’s six-month rotating presidency of the EU and as Macron is starting a new term in office, it is worth asking: what explains the gap between Macron’s ambitious European agenda and the fact that most of his efforts during his first term ended in failure?
The reality is that there is a problem with the Macron method. His grandstanding speeches have clearly shaken other European leaders out of their denial and complacency, but they have systematically failed to create a coalition to act.
The gulf between Macron’s rhetoric and action was most visible in the last meeting of EU leaders in June that ended France’s rotating presidency of the EU and that will go down as perhaps the biggest setback to Macron’s European agenda since the botched Meseberg Declaration in June 2018. Indeed, his plea for deeper integration was ignored, his call to create a European Political Community was barely discussed, and his hopes to debate a potential convention to reform European treaties were so far removed from other leaders’ agendas that it was taken off the agenda altogether.
His euro area agenda, launched in June 2018 en fanfare, was buried a few days later by Mário Centeno, Portugal’s then-finance minister and the president of the Eurogroup, and the European Council placed a nail in the coffin thereafter. With it, the hopes for a euro area budget to better stabilize the single currency and solidify its architecture vanished. Nothing has moved on the incomplete euro area architecture since.
His stiff rejection in 2019 to open accession talks with Western Balkan countries, when he unilaterally and belatedly called for a new enlargement framework, not only irritated most of Europe but had to be entirely overturned in 2022 in the face of growing instability.
Macron’s European policy suffers from three fundamental ills: It is vague, unilateral, and self-serving
His provocative 2019 statement that NATO was brain-dead didn’t enable any steps toward the creation of the new European security architecture he called for.
And the joint Financial Times op-ed that Macron wrote with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi in December 2021 calling for a new form of EU economic governance was not even discussed at the pompous Versailles Summit in March, and no proposal for reforms of European fiscal rules have emerged from Paris since.
Macron’s plea for a conference on the future of Europe, which he designed during the European election campaign in 2019, as a launching pad for deep institutional reforms was quickly watered down by the European Parliament, and his bold attempt to resuscitate it during his May 9 speech in Strasbourg was met with stiff resistance.
During that speech, Macron also set the stage for a new European Political Community to allow Europe to both enlarge with new member states and deepen its integration with existing ones—recognizing that this would require a complete overhaul of the EU’s treaties.
After such an ambitious speech, it is difficult to imagine a more disastrous response. On the day he gave it, a coalition of 13 member states led by Sweden published a strong rebuttal stressing that the conference was never designed to achieve institutional and treaty reforms. Less than a week later, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain and the Netherlands essentially rejected any involvement by the leaders at this stage by suggesting a bureaucratic “ad hoc working group”—in other words, a slow death by attrition.
In a matter of days, Macron managed to face the opposition of some 19 out of 27 countries for ideas that could have—with more preparation and advance diplomacy—gathered majority support. With this defeat, Europe finds itself without a real agenda to strengthen its architecture and without a real plan to solidify its commitment to its neighborhood.
The reason for such failures is that Macron’s European policy suffers from three fundamental ills: It is vague, unilateral, and self-serving.
It is vague because France remains fundamentally ambiguous about critical aspects of its European vision. While Germany states that it wants to build the kernel of a federal state for the EU, Macron seems to believe uttering the word “federal” is too costly at home and too idealistic abroad. The expansion of qualified majority voting that France often calls for would avoid the blocking veto of smaller member states in areas such as fiscal or tax policy. But France rarely clarifies whether it is prepared to abandon its own veto power in areas of critical interest like foreign policy or defense, and whether it is prepared to transfer executive authority to the European Commission and expand the powers of the Parliament.
Macron’s rejection of the Spitzenkandidat process in 2019—by which the president of the commission would be designated from the winning political party of the European elections, providing stronger visibility and legitimacy —rightly or wrongly cemented the sentiment that Macron’s European vision was just another brand of Gaullism.
It is unilateral both in the sense that Macron would always rather go it alone than build coalitions and because France’s European policy seems to start and stop with him. Indeed, his government, his diplomatic services, and critically civil societies across Europe could be a natural amplifier of his views but are more often than not left in his shadow. And his approach is rarely to build coalitions, organized around shared goals.
What is perhaps more striking is that the few times Macron did act collectively, he was extraordinarily successful: The coalition he helped build (against Germany) in Sibiu in 2019 enabled Europe’s move toward carbon neutrality, and the letter he signed in 2020 along with eight other member states (against Germany) demanding a common fiscal response to the COVID-19 crisis led to the 750 billion euro ($826 billion) EU recovery plan.
After a first term filled with disappointed European ambitions, Macron has still not come around to a theory of change that combines boldness with consensus-building
Finally, Macron’s approach to the EU is often self-serving and can easily be mistaken for a Napoleonic attempt to remake Europe in France’s image and interest.
This is perhaps more evident in the foreign policy and defense field, where Macron’s bold ambition for a sovereign Europe is perceived as the attempt of a declining power to leverage the strength and size of Europe to sustain its vanishing foreign-policy influence.
Yet France’s lack of willingness to discuss sharing its nuclear deterrence capacity with the rest of Europe, the promotion of France’s military-industrial complex rather than the creation of a genuinely European one, and the reluctance to discuss qualified majority voting on foreign policy (which would amount to France losing its veto and weakening its unilateral intervention power) or the Europeanization of arms export controls (which would subject France’s expansive use of bilateral arms deals to European scrutiny) are all understood across Europe as signs that Macron talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk of genuine European integration in the field of defense.
It is striking that, after a first term filled with disappointed European ambitions, Macron has still not come around to a theory of change that combines boldness with consensus-building.
This leads to increasing isolation and forces France to masquerade failures as successes and to keep depicting red-carpet meetings such as the upcoming meeting of European heads of state in October as a true step towards a real European political community when the meeting has no real agenda, purpose, or deliverables.
While Macron undoubtedly remains the European leader with the clearest view of Europe’s future and necessary reforms, his inability to achieve any of them leaves Europe profoundly vulnerable and without direction.
The real danger now is that in the absence of an agenda for political integration, the war on Europe’s border, the economic cost of sanctions, and the toll of the required energy transition will transform the current moment from an opportunity into a source of division and paralysis.
To avoid this outcome, Berlin needs to come out of its profound state of denial and put into practice its coalition treaty ambition by a making a strong call to Europeanize energy policy and clarify its conditions for building a new European security architecture and capacity.
France’s European policy needs to be clearer, more patient, and less self-serving. France must shed its ambiguity about the sort of institutional reforms it is calling for even if they take a generation to materialize. It also needs to end the grandstanding and personalization of its European efforts—for there is clear evidence that whenever Macron spends the time and energy to build broad and diverse transnational coalitions, he and Europe succeed.
This text was first published by Foreign Policy on August 18, 2022.