Fabrice Pothier interprets French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent speech as heralding a bold and ambitious – if not essentially new – strategy for French leadership in the European Union.

By Fabrice Pothier, IISS Consulting Senior Fellow for Defence Policy and Strategy

On Tuesday 26 September at Paris-Sorbonne University, President Emmanuel Macron gave a pro-European speech of a sort seldom heard in France. The young president made an energetic, impassioned case for Europe to traditionally sceptical French voters. With a long and ambitious list of initiatives to reform and strengthen Europe, including in the areas of defence and security cooperation, Macron is seeking to seize the European agenda. With this speech, the French president has effectively kicked off the 2019 European elections campaign. The same approach – a mixture of substantive agenda, daring tactics and inspired optimism – brought Macron to power in France. This time, Macron’s goal seems to be nothing less than putting France (and himself) back in the driver’s seat in Europe, a role France has largely conceded to Germany. With German Chancellor Angela Merkel emerging weakened from her fourth election and embarking on difficult coalition negotiations, Macron sees an opportunity for alternative leadership in Europe. At the same time, the president knows that if some of his key proposals are to become reality he must forge a close partnership with Berlin. This is the tension that runs through Macron’s speech and which will define European politics in the years to come.

Macron’s choice of location says as much about his intentions as the speech itself. The president explained that he picked the Sorbonne because of its history as one of the early beacons of a European spirit. But an unspoken political reason loomed large in the background. It was in the same amphitheatre more than 25 years ago that France’s last big debate about Europe took place, featuring François Mitterrand arguing, on live television, in favour of the Maastricht Treaty. This was in 1992; Macron was 15, and no doubt he remembers this moment of political bravura, when an ageing president put all his weight behind a difficult referendum. The yes vote won with a thin 51.04%, and the rest – the Euro, Schengen – is history.

Yet one can easily argue that the Sorbonne debate represents the original sin of France’s political class in European affairs. There, responding to his Gaullist interlocutor Philippe Séguin, Mitterrand promised that the treaty would not infringe on French sovereignty. The main features of the treaty were to prove structurally flawed, however, and are at the core of what Macron wants to fix. As Macron said throughout his speech, too many politicians have lacked the courage to tell voters why Europe really matters, resorting too often to blaming Brussels and failing to explain the true implications of important decisions. It is as if for decades the European Union has been oversold as a peace project (Franco-German reconciliation) to voters increasingly distant to the Second World War, while the true meaning of European integration (pulling together sovereignty to manage globalisation) has been largely overlooked, and poorly explained.

A sovereign hand in a European glove

Macron is trying to solve this long-running paradox by putting to his young audience a new equation: Europe is about enhancing, not diminishing, France’s sovereignty. Sovereignty is the first pillar of what the president calls his triptych for a new Europe: sovereignty, unity and democracy. As he bluntly puts it, outside the EU, sovereignty is unlikely to mean much in the face of economic giants such as China or the United States. Only Europe can guarantee true sovereignty, insists Macron. To use a metaphor, Macron’s Europe is a sovereign hand in a European glove. While convincing, this equation is as old as the European idea itself. This was the very essence of the Gaullist embrace of the European construction: preserving France’s influence and sovereignty via European integration (and making sure Germany rebuilds itself within a constraining framework).

The notable difference is that Macron is actually willing to remake the argument, something most of his contemporaries dare not do. What is more novel is the president’s attempt to separate his vision of European sovereignty from nationalism. In a theatrical moment during the speech, Macron stated that he will never concede anything to nationalist or populist forces. This was a barely masked reference to French far-right and hard-left parties who have hijacked the European issue and turned it into a toxic one for mainstream politicians. By putting sovereignty at the heart of his European vision, Macron hopes to reclaim control of the EU issue and place it in the centre-ground of French politics.

Keynes in Europe

While this equation is likely to strike a chord with the average voter in France, the various initiatives Macron listed under the first pillar – sovereignty – lack coherence. This only confirms the point: the speech was, above all else, an attempt to propose a new European narrative to French people. The six initiatives laid out by the President range from more defence and security cooperation, to a common response to migration, a strategy towards Africa, Europe leading on sustainable development, a well-regulated digital market and a solid monetary union. This is an ambitious mixed bag, to say the least. Several of the initiatives contain some fiscal measures, including taxation of digital companies (the ‘Google tax’), a European carbon tax or, later in the speech, a more aligned European corporation tax. This is tax-and-spend Keynesianism taken to new, European levels.

The president is clearly wooing centre-left voters, who made up the majority of his composite electoral base. At the same time, he is preparing the ground for the next big battle: the upcoming five-year EU budget (the Multiannual Financial Framework for 2020–25). He was even willing to break a long-held taboo in French politics: reform of the common agricultural policy. He knows that the gap left by the United Kingdom’s exit – roughly 20% of the EU budget – will have to be filled with cuts, revenue increases or both. And his speech was about putting forward some first elements of a bargain: reduce the share of the common agriculture policy in exchange for more common fiscal policy. Whether the new government in Berlin and other northern European governments will be ready for such a bargain remain uncertain, however.

European defence as the next best thing

The president knows that some of his proposals are a stretch, especially for Germany. But his strategy seems to be to saturate the European agenda with ideas and initiatives to create a momentum in his favour. Of all the initiatives, those in the area of defence and security have won the broadest applause. This might sound paradoxical – after all, just a few years ago, European defence was practically on life support. In late 2013, it was seen as a success simply to get defence added to an EU leaders’ meeting agenda, after years of absence. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a less predictable ally in the United States, have triggered a European defence awakening. Macron went as far as to propose a European intervention initiative, comprising three aspects: a common European intervention force, a common defence fund and a common doctrine. The first already exists in different forms, with the EU battlegroups and the Franco-German Eurocorps, and the defence fund has already made some headway with a new EU fund for defence capability projects. The common doctrine stands as the slightly newer suggestion. Here, the President hits on what has been most lacking in European defence: a common strategic culture, in which member states agree on when and how to use military forces. This is probably an invitation to Berlin to bridge the significant gap that still exists between French forces and their German counterparts. France finds itself lonelier now that the UK – the closest partner to France in terms of strategic culture – is leaving the European Union.

While not fundamentally new, these proposals stand the best chance of success with France’s EU partners. Decisions on reforming eurozone governance, the next EU budget and a common response to migration will be difficult, possibly divisive and potentially unsuccessful. In today’s European political context, defence offers the clearest point of convergence among small and large member states, European doves and hawks. Macron knows this, and behind the apparent boldness and novelty of some initiatives he is playing safe enough to be able to claim some success.

Europe’s neighbourhood is the one area largely neglected. Indeed, apart from few remarks about the Sahel - a region of direct national security interest for France - and one reference to the Western Balkans, the neighbourhood does not seem to be part of Macron's plan for a new Europe. This reflects traditional thinking in Paris, which has been generally conservative about the EU’s strategy in its neighbourhood, and even more sceptical about any future enlargement to the east. (Despite France’s involvement in the Minsk process to solve the Ukraine crisis, Paris has shown little interest in Europe’s east.) The one neighbourhood that truly matters for Paris is the south; illegal migration, failed states and potent terrorist groups all represent significant threats.

Europe’s variable geometry

This omission, however, reveals something more profound about Macron’s European vision. As the president said himself, he is for a differentiated Europe with several circles of integration. At the core is the eurozone, which the president wants to be more integrated, with more pooled financial resources. A second and broader circle includes all EU member states in the Single Market. Macron’s flexible-geometry EU stands in stark contrast with the vision of EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. In his State of the Union speech, delivered a few weeks earlier at the European Parliament, Juncker proclaimed that all EU member states should at some point join the euro. Macron is intentionally proposing a different vision, a more integrated but flexible Europe, away from the one-size-fit-all integration of more traditional EU federalists such as Juncker. This vision also helps to address a long-held grievance in Paris and other capitals of large member states that with the last waves of enlargement, the EU has become too large a club. Senior French officials regularly complain about the cumbersome practice of taking all decisions ‘at 28’. Strengthening the core, including the Eurozone, would help create a smaller inner club of decision makers. Macron’s silence about those countries aspiring to become members of the European Union, such as Turkey, Georgia and Ukraine, reflects a clear choice to focus first on rebuilding the EU from the inside. Once that stronger but more flexible Europe is put together, then other countries can be associated, so the logic goes. This is why Macron even referred to the UK as potentially willing to ‘come back’ in this more accommodating, reformed Europe.

Changing the political reality in Europe

The speech unveils a bold and ambitious European strategy. So ambitious is Macron, indeed, that he is willing to take the risk of starting early – we are, after all, two years away from the European elections, and Merkel is still putting a coalition together - and overreaching with too many initiatives, some not always as new as they sound. He knows that many of his ideas will not be realised overnight, if at all. And he knows that much can happen between now and 2019. The fact that he invited Merkel to sign a new Elysée Treaty by January 2018 is telling of the Macron method: a friendly overture, but one that sets the terms of the partnership. Merkel is unlikely to have a new coalition before December, so issuing such an invitation is a gentle way of forcing her hand. The reaction from Berlin was mostly muted.

In his short but stellar political trajectory, Macron has shown that he does not usually wait quietly for his turn. In this sense, by delivering such a speech now, the president has reminded interested parties that he will not wait for his domestic reforms to be delivered before claiming a new leadership role in Europe. He will simply seize it.

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