No need for more conferences: Emmanuel Macron is the future of Europe.
Macron’s crucial election victory over right-wing challenger Marine Le Pen on Sunday not only secured five more years as France’s president, but also secured – for better or for worse – his place at the center of EU decision-making through 2027 and likely for many years beyond.
When he completes his second and final term this spring, he will still be seven months away from turning 50th Date of birth. An addition to a top post in the EU institutions is hardly out of the question.
But even as Brussels and most of the continent’s capitals breathed a sigh of relief at Le Pen’s defeat, officials and diplomats on Monday began pondering the implications of an EU universe in which France’s self-proclaimed Jupiter truly outshines all other rising political stars – and can pursue his ambitious, integrationist agenda for Europe largely unhindered by French domestic politics.
In an EU still dominated, if not fully controlled, by the Franco-German dyad, Macron is now in a position to claim the mantle of recently resigned German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But whether he achieves his lofty goals – which include deeper economic integration, greater independence from the US in defense policy and transnational lists of candidates in the European elections – will depend on his ability to persuade and persuade other leaders to follow his example follow to build consensus and negotiate concrete deals instead of just agitating and arguing.
“The key to Europe is to find common ground,” said a senior national official who has spent many hours and late nights in the corridors of the European Council’s Europa building, outlining the challenge Macron now faces. “No minimum agreement, that was Merkel’s legacy. Expand the space that we all consider to be in the European interest. That should be the goal.”
In other words, to make a name for himself, Macron must do more than deal with crises reactively by finding the lowest common denominator, and instead steer his colleagues in the European Council towards proactive policy-making that delivers the benefits of the EU to citizens shows.
A first test will take place in just a month at an extraordinary European Council, where leaders will once again grapple with how to deal with soaring energy prices – a surge exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“The best thing he can do now is go to the May 30-31 summit and reach an agreement to support European consumers,” the senior official said. “If he delivers that in the face of the impotence of the German coalition, he can do a lot more if he’s pragmatic and reasonable.”
Oversized French voice
Among the obstacles Macron may face in the coming years is collective resistance to the sense of French hegemony. He is already considered the national leader most responsible for the appointment of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and is known to be very close to Francophone European Council President Charles Michel. Post-Brexit, France is also the EU’s only permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and its only nuclear power, giving Paris an outsized voice in diplomatic talks.
A Paris-based EU diplomat said it was a miracle to watch France assert its interests: first, a French official is complaining about the odd political issue; a paper will follow shortly, and then the paper will be turned into a policy proposal that will more or less be incorporated into the EU regulation within a few months. “It is the country I know with the biggest gap between its effectiveness in Brussels and its citizens’ perception that Europe is not French enough,” said the diplomat.
Brussels is already perceived as extremely French at the moment, and Macron’s election victory, welcome as it may be, only confirms this perception.
Dealing with Russia’s war in Ukraine is among the challenges that Macron and other EU leaders will face in the coming months and years. On this front, Macron’s legacy of conciliatory devotion to Vladimir Putin and his failure to help implement the Minsk peace accords will make some leaders question whether they will let him steer the EU’s approach.
In his quest to become a deal-broker among power-brokers on economic and other political issues, Macron also has to contend with more experienced peers, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who won his fifth term earlier this month, and the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is now serving in his fourth government. Neither will be particularly impressed that Macron is the first French president to be re-elected since Jacques Chirac in 2002.
“He certainly made his second and last choice, but he will not be able to catch Orbán,” said a senior EU diplomat. “Then he must form a government after June [National] parliamentary elections”.
The senior diplomat said there are legitimate reasons to hope that Macron will step up to the pan-European role. “Of course we hope that he will become the European statesman,” said the senior diplomat. “It would do us all good. Let’s leave him in favor of the doubt for now.”
But in Brussels, relief at Macron’s defeat by Le Pen is tempered by the right-wing candidate’s strong showing and fears that Macron will not act quickly enough to make room for a mainstream successor.
The French president is not exactly known for sharing the limelight, and his success in largely wiping out the traditional center-right and center-left parties in France has created a risk that his two-year presidency, like Barack Obama’s in the US will be followed by the election of an anti-immigration Eurosceptic with little loyalty to either NATO or the EU.
A diplomat from southern Europe pointed out that in five years’ time, Le Pen “has a great opportunity since Macron destroyed both the Socialists and Les Républicains”.
To avoid Le Pen or a similar extremist winning in 2027, the southern diplomat said: “We would need a strong center candidate.” It is one of the reasons why Brussels will closely monitor Macron’s election as prime minister.
Macron has had only limited success in pushing his EU agenda. Ideas like creating transnational lists of candidates were brushed aside by other leaders ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections. Macron pushed for the establishment of the Future of Europe Conference, a series of discussions that would explore different ways the EU could evolve and better serve citizens. It remains to be seen whether the conference will become something concrete.
Some said Brussels should enjoy Macron’s win before worrying about the future of Europe or France.
Nathalie Loiseau, a centrist French MEP and Macron ally, said she encountered “a great relief from all Europeans who bombarded us with messages during the election campaign and are now bombarding us again to express their joy. It’s very impressive.”
Macron’s re-election, Loiseau said, means that “we will complete what has already progressed on digital issues and defense. We will accelerate the pace on the Green Deal, and we will continue to tighten things up on Ukraine through sanctions and military aid. And we will prepare a meeting on the Balkans, which is particularly important as the region is going through severe tensions.”
However, Macron’s patchy record in the EU arena will also put pressure on him to tone down rhetoric and go into detail, particularly on issues such as “strategic autonomy” – the goal of making Europe more independent on defense and security issues.
It’s not that ideas like strategic autonomy lack “merit or substance,” said a third EU diplomat, but in Paris there is “a lack of understanding that the EU is not a highly centralized republic.”
In other words: Brussels is not Paris, the EU is not France. “Unless Macron shows understanding and humility towards those who think differently,” said the diplomat. Macron will have a hard time realizing his ambitions. “France,” stressed the third diplomat, “needs partners.”
Maïa de La Baume contributed to the coverage.
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