Emmanuel Macron, France’s 25th President, is set to fail in the most momentous of his endeavors: to integrate the European Union and take it a step nearer to becoming, as he calls it, “a sovereign state.” Fail, at the least, to scale the heights of the very high challenges he has set himself; fail, perhaps, to even put in place bases for others to build on to realize his visions. That is in spite of the energy with which he pursues his goals, and also because of it. He has disdained government by small steps in favor of government by great leaps: identifying desirable outcomes which have defied other leaders, then striving to attain them. But in all cases, he runs up against political and social cultures which are, if anything, becoming less amenable to his kind of change and more irritated the more he presses. In his Sisyphean struggle to move boulders up several hills, he now encounters slopes which are turning into cliffs.
The Frenchman’s main mission in his trip to Washington in late April was to persuade the American President not to scrap an accord with Iran, signed by leading European countries, the European Union itself as well as China and Russia. It was a doomed enterprise, as were visits close on Macron’s heels by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Trump’s dismissal of European pleas was a humiliation for them all, deepened by the understanding that the American President doesn’t give a damn as to what they think because they are unlikely to seriously discomfit him. As Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council for Foreign Affairs wrote in Foreign Affairs,“[L]aments and indignation do not add up to strategy. The real question is whether [the Europeans] will do anything in response to Trump’s actions. The answer is most likely no.”
The latest and largest threat facing Macron’s EU vision is Italy, once its most loyal (and founding) member. The “contract” between the victorious populist parties in the March election is based on a series of policies ostensibly meant to boost the Italian economy and raise living standards. If implemented, it will blow a hole in EU rules, while adding greatly to Italy’s debt (already at over 130 percent of GDP) and imperil the modest growth and stability the previous center-Left government had managed to put in place. Since neither Luigi di Maio, leader of the Five Star Movement, nor Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega, could agree on who would be Prime Minister, they have persuaded a largely unknown law professor at the University of Florence, Giuseppe Conte, to serve as titular head of the government—a man who will both be constantly ignored by them when convenient and inescapably bound to their program.
It’s not yet clear what economic posture the new government will adopt, and how many—if any—compromises it will make from its economic pledges. But it is clear what it will do about immigration. Using his position as Interior Minister Salvini has turned back refugee ships, called for a total closure of Italy’s borders to migrants and aligned Italy with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and hardline German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, president of the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union—the so far permanent, and more conservative, coalition partner to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats—to create what Kurz calls “an axis of the willing” which demands an end to mass immigration.
At a meeting of European leaders on June 24 to discuss the immigration crisis, no agreement on a new system of processing migrants was achieved, and Merkel’s plan for modest tightening of the rules was rejected by Italy, which demands an end to the present rule that makes the country of migrant disembarkation responsible for the migrants.
Macron has taken the lead in condemning Italy for turning away migrants from Italian ports, at one point calling the surge of anger over migration and wage stagnation, which has brought a populist coalition to power, “leprosy.” He argued at the leaders’ meeting that the pressure on Italy had substantially reduced over the past year: Salvini retorted that there had been “650,000 landings in four years, 430,000 applications . . . 170,000 apparent refugees currently housed in hotels, buildings and apartments at a cost exceeding €5 billion. If for the arrogant President Macron this is not a problem we invite him to stop the insults and to demonstrate generosity by opening the many French ports and ceasing to push back women, children and men.”
Macron had returned from his trip to Washington to a France still in the grip of strikes—an ongoing rail strike, punctuated by sporadic action taken by lawyers, air traffic controllers, medical staff, and students. The strikes are a tough test for Macron, although, backed with rising public anger at the strikes and a majority in the assembly which voted by a large margin to turn the state-owned railways into a “commercial venture,” he is likely to prevail against the dwindling numbers of railway workers still on strike.
Still, they are a reminder that, in the first round of the presidential election, many more working and lower-middle class voters chose Marine Le Pen of the far-Right Front National (21.3 percent of the vote) or the far-Left Jean-Luc Mélenchon (19.6 percent) of France Insoumise (France Unbowed), together with Benoît Hamon, the leftist Socialist candidate (6.4 percent). To put it another way, almost half of the votes went to parties which were broadly against privatization, reforms to labor laws, cuts in public service budgets and—in varying degrees—the idea of a more European Union. The platform of the candidate of the center-Right, François Fillon, did include a call for economic reform, but also the intention to repatriate many of the decisions now taken in Brussels: Fillon, though a financial scandal hung over his head, secured just under 20 per cent of the first round vote. Euroskepticism, it could be said, was better represented in France than in the United Kingdom.
Macron won a second round victory against Le Pen—a victory which showed that most French don’t want to give power to a far-Right party, but also that Le Pen has a large constituency. Her father, who in 1972 created and ran the Front National, did get into the second presidential round against the center-Right Jacques Chirac in 2002, but received only 17.8 percent. His daughter doubled that score, winning over large swaths of the country. Still, the moderate Right and most of the Left swung firmly behind Macron, with different degrees of enthusiasm, and gave him a moderate landslide.
The fact remains that underneath the sweeping victory and the subsequent huge vote for Macron’s new party in the general election lies a widespread ambivalence about “more Europe,” a thirst for more social protection and—especially but not only in the working and lower middle class—a continuing resistance to radical economic reform, to privatization and to immigration. Especially Muslim immigration. The editorial director of Le Monde, Sylvie Kaufmann, wrote that, while he had a brief triumph in Washington, “[A]t home (Macron’s) glory is largely gone. The President, who prides himself on talking the talk and walking the walk, has been pushing reforms at a dizzying pace since he arrived in the Élysée Palace. But his fellow countrymen also like to walk their walk—a very different one. True to their reputation, they have taken to the streets to protest and resist changes organized from the top. It has taken a full year for President Macron to meet his moment of truth.”
Both Left and Right wish to imprint on the nation’s consciousness the view that Macron is the “President for the rich” and one whose reforms will see a worsening of conditions for the majority. It was vividly on display in an extraordinary—by usually sedate French standards—interview of the President on April 15 by two journalists, one of the Left (Edwy Plenel) and one of the Right (Jean-Jacque Bourdin). Both scorning to call him “Monsieur le Président,” they told him that “in every area (of society) there is discontent” (Plenel) and “you are searching for cash in the wallets of retirees” (Bourdin—a reference to reductions in pensions). A memoir, Leçons du Pouvoir (Lessons of Power) by the former—and in the end highly unpopular—President François Hollande, for whom Macron had worked as an adviser and as Minister of the Economy, stopped just short of explicitly calling him a traitor and a liar. In a summing up, Hollande described his former protégé as one who “is certain that reality graciously bends to his will as soon as he expresses it.”
The reality which Macron most wishes to bend to his will is the European Union, the reform and energizing of which is his signature and most important project. Hollande’s barbed remark has the most relevance here. It is above all Macron’s will which is driving the effort—though he must by now be under few illusions that the European Union is likely to bend to it simply because he has expressed the urgency with which it should.
The direction of travel of his plan for Europe is towards the center: a greater authority for the Union, deriving from such institutions as an EU Finance Ministry with real powers1 over Eurozone countries’ policies; a joint budget for Eurozone members; and a permanent commission to oversee Eurozone economic policy. In a speech in Paris this past September, he argued that “a more integrated Europe” is the way to ensure “real sovereignty . . . the only path that assures our future is the rebuilding of a Europe that is sovereign, united and democratic.” To offset the centralization by making the Union both more democratic and more European, he proposed that an initially limited number of pan-European representatives (27) be elected on the basis of their policies and political stance by voters in every member state—that is, these would-be members of parliament should look for votes in all 27 EU countries—thus beginning to break the link between the representatives and their countries of origin. This was, however, voted down heavily in February of this year by the European Parliament. Hans Michelbach, a member of the German Christian Social Union (CSU), Chancellor Merkel’s permanent ally in the Bundestag, was quoted by Reuters as saying that the idea does “not lead to a deepening, but to a deeper split in the EU,” and said that Macron wished to turn the Eurozone into an “unlimited transfer union.”
Michelbach voices the doubts which are most prominent in Germany and which now, led by Interior Minister Seehofer, threaten the coalition. Macron, without Germany’s full-throated backing, will have no success for his more radical proposals. Protective measures which he has pushed—equal pay in all countries for both native workers and for those from other EU states, and a special tax on the (mainly American) digital corporations—have been accepted. But the political balance in Germany is with Michelbach and the CSU on more sweeping EU reform of the economy, and of parliament. The reaction to Merkel’s own recent politically expedient efforts to meet Macron part of the way on his vision was immediately criticized by Merkel’s governing coalition partners.
Suspicion of those countries, especially in Europe’s south, which will make only partial reforms but seek aid from those like Germany which have put their house in order, is high among Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its partner the CSU. Of the opposition parties, the strongly nationalist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has suspicion of foreigners as a major theme, while the economically liberal Free Democrats (FDP), historically enthusiasts for the Union, are now cooler towards it. The FDP leader, Christian Lindner, walked out of coalition talks with Merkel this past November because he refused to agree to an extension of the powers of the European Stability Mechanism, the six-year old assistance system for Eurozone countries in financial straits. Merkel accused him of endangering the euro’s future.
Only the Greens, with the smallest representation in the Bundestag at just under 9 percent and the Social Democrats, junior partners in the coalition government to the CDU/CSU and reduced to 20 percent of the vote in the last elections, will share the bearing of the Macron standard. Yet even the SPD deputies are becoming less committed on this matter. Olaf Scholz, the former SPD mayor of Hamburg, has been given the crucial financial portfolio, but seems unlikely to depart from the strict guardianship of Germany’s finances enforced by his CDU predecessor Wolfgang Schäuble, who lectured more profligate Finance Ministers on their need to show him real reforms before Germany would assent to any kind of a common transfer union. Scholz is likely to lecture less, but relies on a Schäuble-like determination to “only distribute what I have earned.” It is the posture recommended to his son, Laertes, by Polonius in Hamlet—“neither a borrower nor a lender be.”
The German weekly Spiegel reported that opposition to Macron focused on claims that the idea for a euro finance minister lacks any detail as to which level of government that figure would be responsible for; and that a Eurozone budget would require raising taxes, a measure that would surely prompt still more Euroskepticism. The leftist weekly believes that, as it put it in a June 8 editorial, Merkel’s “days of dominance appear to be over.”
Few, in short, in any European state wish to embrace the Macron ideas with the requisite amount of enthusiasm: the common response is effectively “Interesting, but…” In mid-June, the liberal-conservative Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told the European Parliament meeting in Strasbourg that plans for the next EU budget were deeply flawed: “The basic promise of the euro was that it would bring us all greater prosperity—not a redistribution of prosperity. That together we would achieve greater affluence. The pleas now being made to establish a transfer union fly in the face of this promise.”
Macron can hear the sound of European feet shuffling away from him. In a typically long address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg a few days before his U.S. visit, he sought to rally the parliamentarians to at least the general aims of his reformist charge, lauding the energy and inventiveness of civil society, NGOs, and the private sector and saying that to abandon an attachment to democracy in Europe would be a “fausse route”—a wrong turn. But he still argued, albeit less forcefully, that a “new European sovereignty” must be constructed “through which we will provide a clear and firm response to our fellow citizens that, yes, we can protect them and provide a response to this global disorder.”
But the European Union cannot protect its citizens from the world’s disorders. Its security depends very largely on the U.S.-dominated NATO and its legitimacy derives from the nation-states which are its members, and which shy away, even more than in the past, from ceding their sovereignty as President Macron demands. In seeking to create foundations for a United States of Europe at some point in the future, he cuts against more than merely a possibly transient populist mood. He confronts and tries to destroy the political practices and beliefs which Europeans in states more-or-less democratic since at least the collapse of communism (and in many cases, as in his own country, much longer) have been urged to adopt and internalize, and which inform their view of civil society, political accountability, and the space available for civic activities. Citizens in democracies may hold politicians in contempt, but they know who they are, speak the same language, and have the assurance that they can get rid of them in time. The argument that globalization reduces effective national sovereignty cuts little ice with the majority, who wish to retain what power they have to hold their representatives to account.
The vacuum at the heart of Macron’s project is large, and will only get larger. Each step towards greater powers for the center, essential to further more integrated economic and political spheres, will lessen the direct democratic control which nation-states presently offer through parliamentary and presidential elections, and still more fuel the growth of Euroskeptic parties. As often in the past, Italy is a pioneer in seeking to create a new politics, and points to what is likely to happen elsewhere. The other pointer is Brexit, widely seen as a piece of ignorant populism, even racism, by liberals (including, often especially, in the United Kingdom itself). Yet it is in essence a revolt against a European Union which claims more and more decision-making powers, in favor of a parliamentary system which is familiar, comprehensible, and can produce consequential results, including a change in the governing party. Brexit is likely to be negative economically, at least in the short term and likely beyond. But it makes political sense.
Attempts to make the Macron plan succeed will be increasingly dangerous politically. The European Union’s determination to plunge towards “ever closer union”—Macron apart—is now merely rhetorical. Though the new, largely rightist nationalists are the most potent force opposing, it has always had prescient critics from the liberal wing of politics, among the most powerful of whom was the late Tony Judt, especially in his 2011 book A Grand Illusion?, based on a series of lectures he gave in Bologna University. In it, he wrote that “however desirable in principle, an ever-closer bonding of the nations of Europe is, it is impossible in practice, and it is therefore imprudent perhaps to promise it. . . . I don’t wish to suggest that there is something inherently superior about national institutions over others. But we should recognize the reality of nations and states, and note the risk that, when neglected, they become an electoral resource of virulent nationalists.”
That last warning is very much to the present point. In the Central European states of Hungary and Poland, the ruling parties—especially Law and Justice in Poland and Fidesz (an acronym of the League of Young Democrats) in Hungary—have been elected legally and in the latter’s case overwhelmingly. They use their majorities to bolster their own rule by harrying and weakening liberal media and other institutions. Michael Ignatieff, the scholar, journalist, and former leader of the Canadian Liberal Party who now heads the Central European University in Budapest, one of the liberal targets of attacks by the Fidesz Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, told an audience in Oxford in April that “the nationalist counter-revolution is legitimized by democracy. Under majority rule, legislation and other measures against liberal institutions are undertaken in the name of the people. We are accused of exacerbating inequality—and thus any defense we mount of academic freedom is seen as a defense of privilege, and of a caste.” Yet, as Damir Marusic noted, a citizen of one of the Central European former communist states “listens to the incessant complaining coming from democratic determinists in Brussels and bemusedly scratches his head. His legitimately elected leaders are merely protecting values dear to him and his country from a bunch of messianic foreigners preaching an idealistic universalism he’s never signed up for, and that he doubts exists.”
The truth is that liberals everywhere have neglected Judt’s advice, and ignored nationalism and national parliaments’ claim to sovereignty—indeed have often denigrated nation-states as decaying holdovers of a less enlightened era. Instead, they have seen the European Union as a model of the future, pacific and projecting only soft power, and have accepted that it must be integrated by technical means, through extending European power and influence over budgets and economic targets, and by the creation of the euro itself, a financial innovation introduced for the political end of greater integration.
That currency was done prematurely, with the users of the currency at widely different economic levels and with no possible recourse to the mechanism which had helped nations absorb economic shocks: a devaluation of the currency. The Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote in March 2015 that “it has been obvious for some time that the creation of the euro was a terrible mistake. Europe never had the preconditions for a successful single currency—above all, the kind of fiscal and banking union that, for example, ensures that when a housing bubble in Florida bursts, Washington automatically protects seniors against any threat to their medical care or their bank deposits.” The economic adviser to Pope Francis, Federico Nicolaci, believes that the Eurozone crisis has shown that “a form of unity based on economic utility is highly unstable: with the dwindling of material advantages, nothing remains to keep the EU countries together, thereby paving the way to centrifugal tendencies. What we see today is precisely the lack of political willingness of richer EU countries to share with the poorer not only rules and institutions, but also burdens and benefits.”
The heaviest blow came in a June column from the influential Financial Times economic commentator Martin Wolf (who has supported the currency for years), which began by saying, “The euro has been a failure. This does not mean it will not endure or that it would be better if it disappeared. The costs of a partial or complete break up are far too great. It means that the single currency has failed to deliver economic stability or a greater sense of a European identity. It has become a source of discord.” Wolf concluded, “Good fences make good neighbours. A currency of one’s own is a good fence. It is such a pity this was forgotten.”
Should the rest of the EU members thus follow Britain out of the institution—to perform a “EURexit” which would return these nations to full national sovereignty, with their own currencies once more? To be sure, the Union has grossly inflated its palliative effects on postwar Europe. It has not, for example, been the only or even the prime reason why war did not again descend on the continent: that is owed much more to the United States, for injecting Marshall Aid into impoverished economies, shouldering the main burden of common defense through NATO and, for the most part, underpinning the values of democracy and liberty.
For all that, a union ought to be preserved, if shorn of its imperial mission and radically reformed—in a quite different direction from that in which the French President wishes to take it. The European Union’s great benefit has been to foster greater cooperation among the European political, business, and academic elites. It allows elected representatives and officials to understand at a depth never before possible the issues and problems, both singular and common, with which all states’ governments must wrestle, and encourages joint actions on the protection of the environment, joint research programs, and joint approaches to terrorism and crime. The Erasmus program allows students from all the members’ universities to study for short periods in other countries’ universities, and is much prized.
Nor are these benefits confined to the elites. Cheap air travel, intra-European tourism, the spread of English as a common language, the almost-weekly staging of European sports contests, the spread of recipes and restaurants drawing on different national and regional cuisines, and the cheesy, immensely enjoyable and popular annual Eurovision song contest have all made Europeans familiar to each other in an unprecedented way, a development which the European Union encourages and for which it provides a framework. The remark made by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the course of a speech in the House of Commons in September 1938—that Britain should avoid becoming involved “in a quarrel in a far-away country (Czechoslovakia) between people (Czechs and Germans) of whom we know nothing”—would be now inconceivable. We can quite easily know a lot about both these countries, even if the knowledge is gained, as it often is, from a laddish beer-fueled jaunt round Prague or a rock concert in the Mercedes Benz Arena in Berlin.
But the positive benefits of the European Union should be sustained by national parliaments, without the constant prod of a Commission dedicated to transforming cooperation into integration. The European Parliament, in this, is largely irrelevant: as the Oxford-based Polish political scientist Jan Zielonka writes, “the system of representation embodied by the European parliament is opaque, probably beyond repair. [It]. . . should probably be allowed to do what it does best, a kind of auditing and monitoring of European institutions with no pretensions to act as a sovereign pan-European representative assembly.”
Zielonka has been among the few scholars to attempt a sketch of what a different European Union could look like—one which, had it been on offer, might have taken the edge off the sharp disaffection in the United Kingdom which prompted Brexit. Though Britain is treated as a chauvinistic pariah which will be given a hard time by the European Union pour encourager les autres, an unease at the remoteness of the EU is sensed by millions. The U.S. economist Dani Rodrik, a liberal who critiques many of the postures taken by liberalism, noted that “even though Britain is not a member of the Eurozone, the Brexiteers’ call to ‘take back control’ captured the frustration many European voters feel.”
Zielonka’s alternative, adumbrated in two short books, Is the EU Doomed? and Counter-Revolution: Can Open Society Survive?, is suggestive rather than detailed. He urges liberals not to continue striving for the nirvana of a United States of Europe but to propose “new visions of democracy, capitalism and integration.” This is, as he recognizes, a tall order, one which he believes will take at least a decade to produce something like a new consensus. Instead of a “sovereign” and more integrated Europe, he sees in the activities of civil society, aided by networks created by social media and the Web, a new form of politics in which sovereign power, for the present, stays with the nation-state. Regional and city councils and civic bodies are often more important than national, certainly than European, governance.
Liberal society should be increasingly underpinned by a “polyphonic Europe” which “embrace(s) the basic principles of effective governance: functional coordination, territorial differentiation and flexibility.” It would cease to attempt to strengthen top-down governance , instead setting standards of openness, fairness, and transparency within which networks of actors develop local democratic centers which have real meaning for people, which they can both influence and from which they can benefit.
The vagueness of these ideas reflects the early stages of thinking about the deployment of a different sort of European Union. They also struggle to be heard from under the remaining large power of the centralized European concept, still drawing its moral force from the idealism of the early pioneers, as Jean Monet and Altiero Spinelli, who saw the creation of a united continent as a prophylactic against future wars produced by national enmities and egoism, these wars likely to be even more hideous than those they had witnessed and lived through.
Spinelli was, of all the early creators of the European Union, the one most often identified as first putting the notion of a united European state squarely before Europeans. A communist (though he resigned from the party after the war), he was imprisoned in 1927 by the fascist regime, first in a mainland prison then on the prison island of Ventotenne, a few miles off the coast of Naples. This second imprisonment offered Spinelli more freedom; he was able to live and work in the open air, associate with fellow prisoners, even grow tomatoes. The manifesto which he and his friend Ernesto Rossi drew up in June 1941, “For a Free and United Europe,” become one of the foundation texts of the federalist movement, which he and others founded once they could leave the island after the allied invasion, in 1943.
In August 2016, a few weeks after the British voted for Brexit, the then-Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi persuaded Chancellor Angela Merkel and the then-French President François Hollande to come with him to Ventotenne, to pay homage to Spinelli. With Britain effectively out of the inner councils of the European Union, Renzi sought to raise Italy’s profile by associating himself publicly with the two leading states which are the traditional axis of European power. The symbolism was powerful. The aircraft carrier which took them to the island was called the Garibaldi, the name of the most popular fighter for Italian Unity in the 1860s. They laid flowers on Spinelli’s grave. Yet to watch the events on television in Italy was to be struck with the awkwardness of the occasion: Merkel and Hollande going through the motions politely but formally, while their host, young and vigorous, bustled about enthusiastically.
Two years later, Renzi had lost his premiership and his party had plunged in the polls; Hollande had decided against seeking re-election, as most French presidents do, so unpopular had he become; meanwhile, Merkel had succeeded in creating another Left-Right coalition, but had presided over a large fall in her party’s support and a shrinkage of the two main parties’ vote to little over 53 percent of the electorate—a dramatic Balkanization of German politics. In both Germany and Italy, Euroskepticism had risen; in Italy itself, it is in power.
In France—where Euroskepticism had also risen—an extraordinarily self-confident, clever and energetic President has set himself to carry forward the spirit of the Ventotenne manifesto, written nearly 80 years ago on cigarette papers, by two Italian prisoners. That he will not succeed need not be a tragedy, though it can be represented as one. Europe will not be a state in the lifetime of everyone alive now. It has lost one ideal, but must find others to sustain and deepen that which it developed over centuries: namely the rule of law, equality before that law, and liberty. And it must hope that the American President whom Emmanuel Macron had called a friend and kissed on the cheek cannot do too much damage to democracy and a liberal society in what remains of his time in office.
1 In contradistinction to the relative marginalization of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, presently occupied by the former Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, who is routinely cut out of the large issues facing the Union’s international posture by the differing foreign priorities of the member states.