French President Emmanuel Macron’s address to the “citizens of Europe” on March 4 launched the campaign for the European parliamentary elections, now scheduled for the end of May. Yet those elections remain overshadowed by events just outside the Continent: namely, Westminster’s uncertain ratification of the separation treaty with the European Union. The Brexit drama has even led some Europeans to imagine that, with a second referendum, Britain could remain after all.
Such an outcome would actually be a tragedy for the Union. Europeans should fear the resentment of millions of Leavers, trapped in an institution they had for two years planned to escape. They should realize, too, that few among the other half of the British electorate would accept anything other than the status quo ante, when Britain was barely in the Union anyway. The United Kingdom, after all, was never in the eurozone, nor party to the open-borders Schengen Agreement; and its contribution to the European budget was generously discounted. When Britain did not obstruct initiatives to increase cooperation, it opted out of sharing the burden of refugees and asylum seekers.
Britons are not the only ones who have, in the past decade, rethought their attachment to Europe, the value of EU membership, and the sacrifices that membership demands. The harshest test came for the Greeks, faced in 2012 with a stark choice between defaulting on their debt and crashing out of the eurozone, or enduring a generation of economic contraction to honor their obligations to European creditors.
Belt-tightening has also been the fate of the Spaniards, Portuguese, and Irish. The Euroskeptic Five Star Movement, voted in by Italians on a platform of public spending, has been forced by Brussels to relent on its profligate ways. The prioritization of European constraints over voters’ preferences feeds sentiments that the Union is anti-democratic, while eurozone membership has become synonymous with Germanic austerity—and with Germany throwing its weight around.
Euroskepticism has taken over the governments of Poland and Hungary. While Poland has no intention of leaving the Union—fear of Russia takes care of that, as does the fact that Poland usefully exports more labor than it imports—its ruling Law and Justice party echoes the pre-Brexit position of the United Kingdom: Yes to Europe, so long as its provisions benefit us. Hungary’s Fidesz, meanwhile, has stepped off the reservation with sovereignist provocations and anti-immigrant tirades that violate core Union values.
Against this backdrop, Macron stands almost alone against the EU malaise. Not a year had passed since the 2016 Brexit referendum when Macron triumphed over a Euroskeptic opponent. In his campaign and subsequent speeches, the young leader laid down grand ambitions for the Union, in particular a common defense. Macron was one of the few European leaders to grasp both the reality and the promise of Brexit. Britain had voted to leave because it finally understood the European Union to be a political project—after opting in the 1970s to join an economic union only. With Britain out, the French President proposed to be the engine that would propel the political union forward.
His plans hinged on buy-in from the Germans, however, which was not to come. The far-Right AfD Party, rising from the fallout of the 2015 refugee crisis, took a bite out of the CDU/CSU majority. Only months into Macron’s tenure, Angela Merkel became a lame duck, yielding a yawning political weakness in the core of the Union.
At least one thing has been going well for Europe during those two years: The European Union has kept a united front in the Brexit negotiations. But with the agreement shipwrecked on the shoals of British politics, all eyes have turned to the drama across the Channel, to the exclusion of Europe’s own elections.
As a rule, European elections inspire indifference even when there are no distractions to account for it. A low turnout would thus not be unusual, but it would help the Euroskeptic parties—including Germany’s AfD, France’s Rassemblement National (the renamed National Front), Italy’s Five Star Movement, and to a lesser degree Spain’s Podemos—achieve a strong showing. However unexciting, European elections remain a test of the ability of mainstream governing parties to rally their base—a crucial test for both France and Germany this time around given the weakness of the ruling order in both countries.
Macron realized the danger, and went on the offensive in his typically lofty rhetorical style. His written address to the “Citizens of Europe” is meticulously crafted, ambitious in its reach, and strategic in its design. In less than 1,600 words, Macron managed to touch on all the hot topics of the day. Brexit, Trump, Putin, Facebook, immigration, xenophobic populism, and the environment are, under his pen, bound together in a constructive narrative about the European project. The health of France’s political economy and Europe are similarly fused, in a symbiosis where progress for one is also the solution to the other.
And France needs solutions. The victory Macron secured in the spring of 2017 was hardly a mandate for change. Once President, engaged in delicate, pro-market reforms, he dodged several bullets until the full-blown revolt of the Yellow Jackets at the end of 2018. In a way, he is the victim of his own success: The collapse of the traditional Gaullist and Socialist parties, and the weakening of the trade unions, have opened a space in which less conventional and well organized opposition can thrive. But his main problem is not institutional: Genuine grievances drove the protesters to the public arena.
The Yellow Jackets started out disorganized, displaying an undefinable blend of spontaneity, violence, and radicalism with hues from Left and Right. Before long, the largely rural protesters seem to have been infiltrated by seasoned stormtroopers of both extremes. No matter the evolving mix, their message is clear as can be: down with the neoliberal, transnational agenda of the European Union, seen to benefit the wealthy and the cosmopolitan while impoverishing the nation. Another theme is expressed in a pithy, rhyming slogan: Macron démission, a command for the President to step down.
And thus the fates of Macron and the European Union are tied. His party, La République en Marche (LRM), now stands on the front lines of the coming European elections—its first real test since winning the French Parliamentary majority in 2017 as a fledgling party. The European elections will show if the center can hold, and whether the Gaullists and Socialists still have life in them. The LRM can thrive against two extremes, but it will struggle in a five-party landscape.
The European campaign also coincides with the conclusion of a period of popular consultation in France, concocted by Macron in December to hollow out the Yellow Jacket movement. Inviting the French to express written grievances on any matter is an exercise with an ominous precedent. Louis XVI fatally had his subjects compose Cahiers de Doléances in the lead-up to the Revolution that would later claim his head.
Macron will need more than words to turn the situation around. Placating public grievances will likely force him into the “more for less” trap—promising higher benefits and lower taxes, in contravention of the fiscal prudence that a good rapport with Germany demands. Internationally, his call for a European Renaissance may demand more from France than visionary declarations of intentions. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s replacement as the head of the CDU, put the question bluntly by asking for France’s permanent seat at the UN Security Council.
The European Union will still count 27 members after Brexit, but the Franco-German axis remains as central as ever. On January 22, in the historical Carolingian capital of Aachen, Macron and Merkel marked the anniversary of the famous 1963 Élysée Treaty of Friendship between France and Germany, which ended centuries of rivalry and hostility, with a newly minted Treaty of Cooperation and Integration. The ambitions laid down at Aachen are small but significant. If allowed to develop they will tend to progressively erode some of the administrative and cultural boundaries that make the two countries distinct.
The response to the Aachen ceremony was hostile from the extremes and, with the Yellow Jackets and Brexit stealing the limelight, indifferent from the rest. Amid the morass, Macron retook the initiative by proposing a three-pronged vision to the citizens of Europe.
The first part of the vision, aimed squarely at Russia, is to protect European democracy from malicious disinformation. True to form, in the same breath, Macron equates countering cyber attacks by foreign powers with censoring hate speech which, from the perspective of his far-Right adversaries, could be construed as silencing free speech.
For the second project, he aggregates different agendas under the common rubric of border security. Macron first reiterates his central ambition to build a common European defense—the one domain where the UK is invited to participate. He then includes under this rubric tax evasion, environmental dumping, outsourcing and, crucially, immigration—a strategic blend of themes, some designed to please the Left, others catering to the growing number of voters tempted by the nationalist Right.
The third project is based around the loose, feel-good category of “progress.” Here, Macron taps into the fears of a European electorate wary of GMOs and chemicals, of carbon emissions, of the privacy violations of hegemonic Big Tech companies, and of the risks to privacy posed by AI, metadata analytics, and 5G networks. By tying progress on all those issues to the European project, he aims to transform the image of the Union from a pit of neoliberal stasis to a force for progressive change.
A crucial aspect of his progressive agenda is a coordinated European effort against social dumping, with standardized workers’ rights and protections. With this, he loudly slams the door behind the United Kingdom. Common social regulations represent the kind of infringement on sovereignty that Britain abhors, and for Macron to make a push on that front is to take stock of Brexit and write off the possibility of a remain—or a return. But Britain to the side, one wonders if Macron understands the complexity and cost of actually doing what he has proposed. It would require creating countercyclical functionality in the EU economic space, and addressing the rural/urban segmented economies problem in every EU member state. No one yet even knows how to do that.
In any case, EU regulations will affect future trade negotiations between Britain and the European Union. Brexiteers come in many flavors, not all of them xenophobic isolationists. Entrepreneurs in their ranks were hoping to retain free access to the common market, minus labor and environmental regulations, which would have enabled them to outcompete European firms.
That’s how, aside from the sensitive legacy of The Troubles, the border with Northern Ireland became the Trojan Horse of Brexit. It would either be a gateway for EU regulations to impose on the UK (the backstop), or for cheap products to invade Europe from the UK. Brussels fought successfully in the Brexit negotiations to avoid the latter, and any future trade agreement with London is unlikely to be complacent toward regulatory dumping.
Britons have a selective memory of their great history. Their country became a world power at a time when it had famously abandoned mercantilism for free trade, in the 19th century, and from these days linger an association between unfettered commerce and prosperity. They brought this attitude to Europe. For them, the Union is a market, access to which they would regret to lose, but nothing more. They have no appetite for norms and regulations originating from across the Channel.
But Britons did more than trade with the world. The Crown established profitable colonies, from Jamaica to the eastern shores of the United States, which became nations. The East India Company had armies, and went to war with Indian Maharajas and Arab Sultans and Chinese emperors, in part to secure favorable terms of trade, but also to impose its vision of an international order. Certainly, when Britain put an end to the slave trade, it was not by arguing the merits of free enterprise. It happened when the British navy ruled the sea, and felt entitled to board ships that violated the norms it had set for everyone else in the world. One may daresay they acted then a bit like Americans have often felt entitled to act more recently.
It is in relation to norms, to the regulation of the international order, that European construction is so important. The world’s countries are clearly not converging toward liberal democracy. The regression of Turkey, in particular, should alarm Europeans. This is a country that, at the turn of the century, was aligning its regime and institutions on the European model, in support of its application to EU membership. Since then, those plans have been thoroughly jettisoned, and Turkey has become an increasingly crude, corrupt Middle Eastern autocracy.
The aftermath of the Arab Spring has not seen a southward expansion of European values (whatever they may constitute at this point), but a confirmation of divergence, and an affirmation of the influence of alternative global powers. Russia has elbowed its way from Ukraine to Syria, while hacking computer systems throughout Europe and killing people on British soil.
China, meanwhile, has staked a claim to be a future superpower, and is poised to have an outsized influence on global norms in everything from international trade to financial transactions, international copyright protection to internet freedom, the laws of the seas to the laws of airspace and outer space—to say nothing of carbon emissions and global climate change.
Since World War II, the United States has played the pivotal, even hegemonic, role in setting the rules of the international order in ways that were mostly agreeable to Europe. But whether the United States disengages from its international commitments willingly or is no longer able to sustain them, Europe needs unity if it is to have any future say at the table. This is not Confederative idealism, but an argument for unionization and collective bargaining in a turbulent world.
Macron understands that Europe will only decay if it does not keep moving forward, pulled by vast ambitions. A clean Brexit; an orderly rejuvenation of Germany’s CDU under Kramp-Karrenbauer; a stabilization of French politics and a good showing for Europeanists in the forthcoming elections are needed to improve prospects for the Union. A crucial step would be the creation of a Eurozone budget. Optimists envision that this would drive the laggards to join the common currency, and allow for needed investments in infrastructure and a common defense, starting with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.
Alas, none of these necessary predicates may occur. If they do not, then Macron’s skillful proposal and address to EU citizens will reveal, yet again for those who need the tutoring, that grand and noble ideas require power to bring them into contact with reality. Shakespeare said it well to start his 34th sonnet:
Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way,
Hiding thy brav’ry in their rotten smoke?