The French president has displaced Angela Merkel as the continent's most powerful leader—and he has big plans for a big EU
“You as a political project are in denial.” Those words are now part of the EU lexicon thanks to Nigel Farage’s speech in the European Parliament following the Brexit referendum. Farage’s point: despite Brexit, the European Union was unwilling to concede that its process of centralization had gone too far.
Farage had a point then, and he has a point now. Despite concerns over too much centralization of the EU’s competencies, Brussels has only continued to consolidate power. It’s now moving to question the principle of unanimity that requires all nations to agree on foreign policy decisions, and is even constructing a European army.
Opinion among the people of Europe, however, is much different. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 58 percent of those in Greece, 57 percent in Italy, 61 percent in France, half of Germans, and 61 percent of Spanish said they favored referendums on their nations’ memberships in the EU. It should be noted that only small minorities in each of these countries actually want to leave the EU: even in Poland, under considerable pressure from Brussels, euroskepticism only rises to 10 percent.
However, two things need to be said about these numbers. First, the levels of skepticism are higher than during the 2008-2014 period, which indicates that another major event like a financial crisis could deteriorate the EU’s favorability ratings much further. And second, Pew also found that only 20 percent support increasing the power of the EU—the view taken by most of those in Brussels.
In fact, the European Union’s strategy to regain its peoples’ trust hasn’t been to rethink the process of political integration, but to foster it. The mantra of “more Europe” is also shared by French president Emmanuel Macron. Macron has marked his appearances in the European Council (the body representing the member states of the EU) by demanding the introduction of a so-called “digital tax” on companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, as well as calling for a “Eurozone finance minister” and a budget for the 19 states that share the common euro currency. Macron also suggested the introduction of minimum wages in individual member states in order to “renew the European social model.” While 25 member states are gradually integrating their military forces through the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO)—including upgrades to maritime surveillance, armored infantry vehicles, and artillery—Macron has made it crystal clear that “Europe is devoted to creating a common military force, a budget of a common defense, and of the doctrine of common defense to act.”
Macron is even digging out old and failed attempts at taxation by pleading for a European carbon tax and a relaunch of a financial transaction tax, which did not find support even under his socialist predecessor François Hollande.
In order to achieve his European dreams, Macron needs two things. First, he needs Germany. The Franco-German friendship has long determined the scope of the EU, and if Paris and Berlin agree on something, Brussels tends to follow their lead. With Germany governed by an aimless and purely opportunistic coalition government (and with the United Kingdom—long opposed to more EU centralization—out the door), Macron should have little problem getting what he wants. This has left him in the role of Europe’s unofficial leader, and the sudden French dominance of the political situation has become evident in both Paris and Berlin. Former foreign minister of Germany Sigmar Gabriel told the German press back in October that “France is dominating Germany on EU initiatives by 10 to 0.” The French newspaper Le Figaro, meanwhile, quoted a French government minister saying “Macron is a young and strong power; Merkel is a weak and fragile power.”
The second thing Macron needs is to bring down the Euroskeptic voices that have been raised in a large number of European countries. He’s begun work towards this goal by asking member states to host debates on the future of the EU in the coming 10 to 15 years, and as of now 25 countries have agreed to participate. However, this move towards diffusing Euroskepticism could easily backfire: countries like the Netherlands and Denmark have rejected previous EU initiatives when asked in referenda. The Netherlands shot down the European Constitution in 2005 and the European Union Association Agreement with Ukraine in 2016. Denmark voted against the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, and opposed joining the euro in 2000. As the Danish polls showed in 2005 that the European Constitution would likely fail if put to a referendum, the pro-EU government canceled the planned vote and adopted the proposal through its parliament. With countries such as Hungary and Poland now being criticized and potentially sanctioned by Brussels, the pro-EU side of these debates may not be received positively in all member states.
Some of Macron’s allies in Brussels, such as Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, are preparing for the fallout of growing Euroskepticism. Babiš is backing legislation that would make it very difficult to organize a referendum on the membership of the EU by increasing the vote threshold needed to hold one. His government has suggested that 850,000 votes be required for a referendum, and half of the eligible voters in the country be needed to adopt a motion. With a population of roughly 10 million, and voter turnout usually around the 50 percent mark, Babiš is making sure that while on paper a “Czexit” is possible, all conceivable blockades have been put in place to prevent it. If this is the “offer for dialogue” that EU supporters propose, it’s doubtful that people will accept it.
Now that Macron is moving forward on his reform plans, with no intention of putting any of said changes to a public vote, his posture and image in Europe have led media outlets to hail his influence. DW.com described him as “Sun King” or “Hoffnungsträger” (German for “bearer of hope”). One of The Economist‘s July editions had him literally walking on water.
It is certainly true that Emmanuel Macron is living on the chance that he’ll end up the sole European leader with influence on the continent. However, political turmoil in countries such as Poland and Italy, as well the reticence of small states such as Malta, the Netherlands, and Denmark, might make his reforms bumpy. They could be seen as giving the European Union a restart, but they’re just as likely to light another fire under the Euroskeptic movement.
If we know one thing about French monarchs in Europe, it’s that they’ve tended to overestimate their support among the common man. It’s always important to make sure you don’t…lose your head over your ideals.