PARIS — Emmanuel Macron knows by now that it was easier to become French president at 39 than to reform Europe.
From his failed bids to change the way the European Commission chief and Parliamentarians are chosen to his slow-moving eurozone reform plans, the French president’s difficulties on the European stage show the limitations of his style of politics. Ideas and energy alone aren’t enough to move the tired EU institutions, and his bet on a new Paris-Berlin alliance to transform Europe is hitting the wall of German inertia.
Macron’s European plan looked straightforward: Just as he had uprooted all basic rules of French politics to become president, he would take Brussels by storm. Carried by his youth, enthusiasm, political acumen, and with a bold French reform plan to prove he means business, he would bring the fresh air of change to the EU.
Europe would focus more on its citizens’ daily lives and make sure it would “protect” them. Reforms of the EU political process and monetary union would be implemented by a new generation of leaders eager to kick the habits of the past. And a new partnership between France and Germany would provide “the engine” of European reform.
But after an extended honeymoon when Europe was under the new French leader’s spell, the harsh reality of politics in Brussels and other capitals has begun to show up the limitations of Macron’s liberal revolution.
Remaking the eurozone will prove much harder than planned. Macron’s ideas to reform the European Parliament are bogged down in the sands of EU backroom dealings. And his audacious plans to create a pan-European party on the model of his own La République en Marche (LREM) have been put on hold.
Macron this week will spend most of his time trying to revive the European flame he first lit in a big speech last September at Paris’ Sorbonne university.
On Tuesday, he will have a discussion with MEPs in Strasbourg, then in the afternoon he will hold the first of many town hall meetings he has suggested take place in all EU countries on the topic of Europe.
And on Thursday, Macron travels to Berlin, where he will have four hours of talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the main European topics of the moment, from the eurozone to the next long-term EU budget.
Macron’s friends and advisers deny that the French president is in any way disappointed by his European record so far — or even by the way the EU works.
A French foreign policy academic and occasional adviser to the president pointed out that when he outlined his bold plans for Europe in his Sorbonne speech, “Macron wasn’t naïve.”
“He knew what he was getting into,” said the academic, who didn’t want to be named. “You’re talking about a guy who knows the EU institutions well, came often to Brussels before he was elected, and is blessed with a keen political acumen. Not the dewy-eyed type.”
Another Macron adviser added: “Just because compromises are difficult to achieve doesn’t mean we must stop fighting. That has never been our approach.”
Yet almost a year after his election, Macron knows it will be more difficult to reform Europe than France.
In France, with no political opposition to speak of and the unflinching support of a massive and obedient parliamentary majority, Macron decides and acts. In Brussels, he must haggle and compromise.
Aides point out the achievements he can claim as his own. Ever since he took power, one of them said, his hyperactivity on the European stage has paid off. France’s voice matters again, after 10 years when the country’s haphazard diplomacy, coupled with the euro crisis, reduced it to a marginal role. And a year after his election, the French president is still the wonder-kid of European politics.
What’s more, a Macron aide said, “we got results.”
A French diplomat cited the changes enacted to tighten the Posted Workers Directive and the decision by European leaders to review regulations on foreign takeovers to make them tougher. Other achievements may “not be the type to make headlines,” the Macron aide said, mentioning progress on a plan to create a network of 20 European universities by 2024.
It hasn’t gone so well on other topics.
On the eurozone, the long power vacuum in Germany, where it took six months to form a government after an inconclusive election, didn’t favor in-depth negotiations between two countries with long-standing diverging approaches on the matter. But now that a proper team is in place in Berlin, it looks like normal service will be resumed and German reluctance to engage in significant risk-sharing will water down the mooted reform.
The year-long talks and speeches are likely to end in June with a set of minimalist measures falling way short of the comprehensive reform Macron had in mind for the monetary union, according to a top EU official: incremental progress on the banking union and maybe a deal on a small, common investment budget.
As for Macron’s ideas on how to reform the European Parliament, which holds elections in May next year, they’ve been smothered by the shock of national interests and political lobbies.
The French president suggested that a limited number of deputies be elected on a transnational basis. It won’t happen this time around.
He contested the Spitzenkandidaten process that allows the political parties in the Parliament to de facto choose the next European Commission president. It looks like the system, used for the first time in 2014 for the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker, will survive.
Macron may well insist that the head of the winning list not be “automatically” designated as the next Commission president. But that’s the same legalistic view that Merkel used in 2014 to oppose, in vain, the appointment of Juncker.
The French president also planned an alliance of his own LREM movement with other like-minded European parties. The problem is that the parties close to him lose elections, while those who win aren’t close to him.
LREM would have liked to enter an alliance with Italy’s Democratic Party (PD), whose former leader Matteo Renzi was Italy’s prime minister from 2014 to 2016, and in some ways was a precursor of Macron. But the PD was trounced in the Italian parliamentary election last month.
Macron’s party doesn’t have any possible partner in Germany. Its only potential ally among Europe’s biggest parties is Spain’s Ciudadanos, currently polling ahead in the country.
Even though the road to Brussels hasn’t been as smooth as he may have expected, there is little chance that Macron will retreat and tone down his calls for “in-depth transformation” of the way Europe works.
The first reason is that he doesn’t think the populist threat and Euroskepticism have subsided in Europe, and recent elections such as those in Italy and Hungary appear to prove him right.
“Everyone was celebrating last year because of what happened in the Netherlands or in France, but we haven’t forgotten that in the first round of the French presidential elections, Euro-hostile parties polled almost 50 percent of the vote,” the Macron aide said.
The second reason is that Macron thinks that global threats, from Russia’s assertiveness to a possible Trump-triggered trade war, should force Europe to get its act together and “strengthen the European democratic model currently under attack,” said his academic friend.
Finally, Macron built his presidential campaign on a promise to the French that he would make Europe not only more “protective,” but also stronger and more prosperous.
“Whatever the pitfalls and whatever the setbacks, we have no other choice than keep pushing,” the Elysée adviser said.