Will Emmanuel Macron's victory help Europe weather the storm?

10 May 2017 - 16:05
Source: École Polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay/flickr

“A perfect storm” was the term many observers were using to describe the European Union’s plight until recently. On top of the euro crisis, the Ukrainian crisis and the refugee crisis came the shock of the Brexit referendum: for the first time, a majority of the electorate in an EU Member State opted to leave. Would other EU Member States follow the British example?

The rising tide of populist Euroscepticism in various parts of Europe made people fear the worst. At the same time the economic recovery remained fragile, Putin was causing instability on the borders in the east, his form of ‘illiberal democracy’ was being emulated in some new EU countries and Trump, the newly elected American president, was keeping Europe speculating about the extent of his support for its security and integration. It looked as if the post-war order in this part of the world was on the verge of collapse. This was indeed something akin to a perfect storm.

Euroscepticism seems to have passed its peak...
Several months on, the political forces of nature appear to have been tamed. First, the EU-27 managed to make a virtue out of a necessity: in the Bratislava process and the Rome Declaration, they confirmed their desire to invest further in Europe and listen to its citizens. They have also been surprisingly quick to form a united position regarding the impending departure of the British. Meanwhile, the European economy is picking up, even Greece is beginning to climb out of the trough, and Putin and Trump have recently calmed down.
What influence these developments have had is unclear but Euroscepticism certainly seems to have passed its peak, for now anyway. In the Netherlands, support for anti-European populism on 15 March was less than forecast. Germany looks set for a victory for Angela Merkel in September while her main rival, Martin Schulz, also has good pro-Europe credentials. The predicted victory for Theresa May in the British elections in June will make the Brexit negotiations less hazardous than was feared. And the always erratic Italian elections have been postponed until early 2018.

More than ever, France is in search of its soul, which presents President Macron with major challenges

And then there is Emmanuel Macron, the new French president as of Sunday 7 May. He won two thirds of the votes cast, comfortably beating Marine Le Pen, his populist rival who for a long time seemed much more of a threat. Macron is a committed European. He also wants to reform France so that it can once again be a strong, self-confident actor on the European stage. So nothing but good news for Europe.

….. certainly after Macron’s victory, or perhaps not entirely?
But is this really the case? Not entirely, at any rate. To start with, Macron’s victory is much less convincing than it might seem at first glance. Many French people voted for him not because they were convinced by him but because they wanted to keep the Front National candidate out. Even so, over ten and a half million French people voted for her, which shows the fractures splitting the French population. More than ever, France is in search of its soul, which presents President Macron with major challenges. He will need to achieve a stable majority for his government in the parliamentary elections in June, no easy task for a completely new party that has yet to put down roots in the country.

It will be even more difficult for him to build broad public support for the reforms he has announced. The changes to the labour system in particular will undoubtedly bring out demonstrating masses onto the streets. Macron would not be the first French president to abandon his plans for a more dynamic France in the face of fierce opposition from the trade unions.

Will Macron be able to restart the Franco-German EU engine...?
And yet Macron will need to find a majority for his reforms if he wants to give France a meaningful role in Europe once again, for France’s position has been declining for years. While the country took the lead in the European integration project before 1990 and kept pace with a significantly expanded Germany after that, in recent years it has lost much of its influence. As a result, the vital Franco-German engine driving the EU has been sputtering for a while now, certainly since the euro crisis broke out in 2010. Not only do France and Germany differ on how to tackle the crisis, the French economy has also been performing significantly worse than the German economy for the past ten to fifteen years.

So far Macron’s victory has been welcomed in Germany, both by Merkel’s CDU and Schulz’s SPD

Macron seems to be well aware of this. In his election manifesto, he says that France must start to comply with the EU’s budget rules at once. But he also wants to give the French economy its dynamism back, with more efficient markets for labour and products. France needs to strengthen its position in global markets, curb its bulging national budget and thereby make serious inroads in its high unemployment. It needs Europe for this, but France can only resume its European role by working on its own problems.

... and can he be certain of Germany’s support?
Will Europe grant Macron this? All eyes are focused on Germany. Will Berlin and Paris once again be able to reach fundamental agreement and thereby lay the foundations for a broad-based European compromise? So far Macron’s victory has been welcomed in Germany, both by Merkel’s CDU and Schulz’s SPD. Germany would like nothing better than to restore the relationship with France in order to advance the European project.

But will this still apply if Macron’s plans start costing Germany money? For example, he wants a separate budget for the eurozone with expenditure determined by a euro parliament and a euro minister of finance and the economy. Might this idea encompass the establishment of ‘eurobonds’, something Germany has always opposed fiercely (as has the Netherlands)? Macron can expect more German support for his idea of having the ‘surplus countries’ invest more in their economies in order to restore equilibrium in the eurozone, especially if he makes a serious effort to introduce reforms in his own country.

However the most important issue is to restore mutual trust in Europe by having all the key countries release the handbrake. Only then will Macron’s election have real significance for Europe and will we see the storm truly abate.

This opinion can also be read in Dutch and was published with the support of the Adessium Foundation.

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