The ‘European Renewal’ of French President Emmanuel Macron
Chloé Papazian (Dublin City University)
On 4 March 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron wrote an opinion article for a ‘European renewal’ addressed directly to the citizens of Europe which was published in several European newspapers yesterday.
One year and an half after his speech at the University of La Sorbonne in September 2017 on new initiative for Europe, Emmanuel Macron comes back to the European fore with a bouquet of proposals to cure the current crisis suffered by the EU which the Brexit outcome epitomizes. He had warned us: in his opening remarks to the Sorbonne speech, the French President highlighted he will not stop speaking about Europe recommending people to get used to his proposals on the EU. Yet, since September 2017, no watershed moment has occurred within the EU. The proposals he made at that time did not lead to meaningful reforms, notably concerning the Schengen area. Admittedly, in the field of security and defence, Emmanuel Macron’s propositions brought some progress: EU Member States created a Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and an intergovernmental agreement consisting of nine Member States, including the UK, the European Intervention Initiative (E2I) saw the light of the day (Leonard Schuette, One Year Since Macron’s Sorbonne Speech: Plus ça change, 25 October 2018, Centre for European Reform). Moreover, some of the reform proposals of the Eurozone, in particular the creation of a European budget, floated in his Sorbonne speech have partially found support from the other Member States (Euractiv, Macron Wins Partial Victory on Eurozone Budget, 17 December 2018). Overall, however, the expected momentum in the European scene following the speech of the French President did not take place.
The German chancellor Angela Merkel’s difficulties with her own governing coalition partners on immigration matters, as well as the attitude of the Italian League-Five Stars populist coalition regarding budgetary and immigration issues did not permit France to revive the European debate and reforms. Moreover, internally weakened by the resilient ‘gilets jaunes’ movement which started last November, Emmanuel Macron had to concentrate on the problems at home, thereby making important concessions to the requests of the movement and launching multiple debates involving the civil society. The opinion article published yesterday therefore aims to enable Emmanuel Macron to reinvigorate discussions at the EU level that would lead to much needed reforms and a ‘European renaissance’. The French President also wishes to regain ground on the international and European scene after his image and reputation may have been considerably tarnished domestically. The proposals contained in his opinion article nonetheless illustrate his internal difficulties as right- and left-wing populist parties gain attraction in France. Since the Sorbonne speech, the tone has changed: while President Emmanuel Macron appears stricter on immigration emphasising the need to jointly secure the European borders, he also put forward instruments to combat fake news and the use of online platforms that often support the promises offered by populist parties.
The present blog offers an overview of Emmanuel Macron’s opinion article. More specifically, it underscores the crucial role played by Brexit which should spur and constitute the root of a ‘European renewal’. Indeed, although the French President dedicated one single paragraph to Brexit and did not even once mention the current Brexit negotiations, the outcome of the UK referendum of June 2016 underlies most of the proposals laid out in this opinion article.
“Time of the essence” to Avert the Two Traps of the European Union
Less than thirty days before the UK exit from the EU possibly without a withdrawal agreement and three months before the European Parliament elections in May, President Macron endeavours to awake the EU citizens’ consciences calling, at such a critical moment, for a commonly defined ‘European renewal’. According to the French President, two traps undermine and threaten the European project.
The first trap relates to nationalist promises, often supported by fake news, with lies and irresponsibility at their core. The outcome of the referendum organised by the UK in June 2016 on the exit from the EU symbolises such first trap. Exploiting the people’s fears and doubts, as well as claiming to defend national identities, nationalist retrenchments have convinced the UK citizens to ask for a withdrawal from the EU. The campaign conducted by the populist parties, however, did not, as President Macron explains, touch upon any of the future complexities the Brexit process and negotiations would incur. Crucially absent of the nationalist promises during the Brexit referendum campaign were discussions relating to the post-Brexit future of the UK people, the significance of their lost access to the EU Single Market, as well as the possible restauration of infrastructures and controls at the Irish border threatening the Peace process between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Manipulation of the people’s doubts and disenchantment with respect to the EU through nationalist and protectionist narratives therefore represents a trap which the Brexit outcome, as well as the difficulties awaiting the UK and its citizens epitomise. Failing to act, the EU is likely to also fall into this trap that would undermine peace, democracy, security, freedom and progress on the European continent.
The second trap identified by the French President risks to strengthen the first trap. In the face of the threats to the European project brought by nationalist ideas and promises, inertia and resignation within the EU would reinforce discourses capable of exacerbating isolation and division, as well as jeopardising what the EU membership and integration have so far permitted. The values of unity, freedom and protection should continue guiding the European project and integration process. Yet, as argued by Emmanuel Macron, the EU with the values it protects cannot be taken for granted.
Hence, at such a critical moment, as two traps menaces the protection and values offered and guaranteed within the European continent, the EU citizens should reinvent, reshape and renew the EU project. While the UK and the EU are sleepwalking into a no deal scenario according to a recent statement of the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in Sharm El-Sheik, the EU cannot, in the words of the French President, “sleepwalk through a diminished Europe.”
The threats faced by EU citizens, and by the same token, the necessary protection to combat such threats are multi-fold; they require, as proposed by the French President, a holistic European renewal addressing a wide array of areas and challenges ranging from amongst others defence and security, democracy, immigration, unfair trade and competition, climate change, social protection and innovation. The proposed comprehensive European renewal revolves around three pillars: freedom, protection and progress. Interestingly, each element within these three ambitions implicitly constitutes a response to the Brexit outcome.
Freedom, Protection and Progress to Avert the Two Traps of the European Union
The three ambitions proposed by Emmanuel Macron truly aim at filling the gaps and answering the fears that resulted in the decision of the UK citizens to leave the EU. In other words, the French President lays down a blueprint to address the very concerns that led to Brexit. Hence, although not explicitly specified, Brexit constitutes the starting point of such European renewal: it reflects the necessity of reforms at the EU level and represents a window of opportunity for reshaping the European project.
Yet, when reading the opinion article, one element strikes the eyes of the reader. While the Brexit outcome is very much present in Emmanuel Macron’s opinion article, the Brexit process and negotiations are the great absentee of this opinion article. The current Brexit chaos less than thirty days before the UK exit from the EU and the possible solutions to avoid a no-deal scenario are not mentioned by any means. Nor does the French President offer a view of the future relationship of the EU with the UK. Emmanuel Macron merely calls for the participation of the UK to the European Security Council to prepare the collective decisions of the EU. He, however, does not specify the framework of such participation mentioning only the European Security Council “with the UK on board.” As a result, President Macron is already a step further looking at the future European Parliament election. Brexit represents only the symbol of a broader EU crisis that requires a recasting of the European project.
Emmanuel Macron’s first main proposal relates to the threats posed to European democracies by fake news and foreign powers’ influence during election processes. He echoes there the Final Report on Disinformation and ‘Fake News’ recently published by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons. Damian Collins MP, Chair of this Committee declared on the date of its issuance that “Democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation and personalised ‘dark adverts’ from unidentifiable sources.” For this purpose, the French President suggests the creation of a European Agency for the Protection of Democracies that will protect EU Member States from cyber-attacks, manipulation and intervention at each election. He thereby attempts to address one of the major regulatory flaws in the EU that contributed, in the eyes of the French President, to the Brexit outcome.
The second major proposal of the French President occupies a pivotal place in the opinion article. It also reflects the firmer stance taken by President Macron as immigration and security issues nurture nationalist promises and permit their increasing ascent. He proposes to revamp the Schengen area with the implementation of stringent border controls and a single asylum policy that follows the same acceptance and refusal rules. He therefore calls for a common border force, strict control obligations, a European asylum office, as well as a European solidarity under the authority of a European Council for Internal Security. If necessary, President Macron suggests that the reform of the Schengen area should occur only with the Member States that wish to be part of it, thereby alluding to a Europe advancing at different paces. Although the UK is not part of the Schengen area, such proposals reflects the concerns relating to immigration, security and job protection that fuelled the Brexit campaign. Yet, the French President’s proposals may appear as hypocritical following the French Government’s uncooperative attitude with respect to the refugee crisis. Moreover, the stricter position adopted by Emmanuel Macron illustrates a dilemma that the EU has and will have great difficulty to solve: how can the EU both promise a more stringent control of its external borders and guarantee its unquestionable values, notably regarding human rights?
The third main proposal of the French President relates to the regulation of global capitalism and the need to ensure within the EU a high level of environmental, fiscal, social and competition standards. He also strongly suggests strengthening the European industry in the face of Chinese and US competition. Interestingly, these proposals aimed at strengthening and protecting the EU against trade aggression and unfair competition prove that the UK will on its own lose leverage in the face of these different threats. While the country wants to take back control, it may fail to have the required standards and trade remedies to protect its own citizens. Furthermore, the different instruments which Emmanuel Macron suggests putting in place reflect the fact that the UK may in the future need to deal with an EU which applies higher safety, environmental, social and tax standards. Should the UK want to continue having access to the EU market, it may have to align with some of these standards. Moreover, as the EU and its Member States recently show signs of building national and European industrial champions, the UK may have to deal with a more protectionist Europe (Financial Times, Germany Backs French Call for Right to Overturn EU Merger Decisions, 19 February 2019 and Financial Time, France Proposed EU Revolution on Picking Winners, 13 February 2019).
The opinion article published by Emmanuel Macron aims at comprehensively renewing and reforming the EU. The Brexit outcome is contextualised as the symbol of the crisis the EU currently faces, as well as the reason for a new momentum on the European continent. Ignoring the worryingly close date of the 29 March 2019 and already looking at the European Parliament elections in May, the French President calls the EU citizens to take part to such renewal of Europe. Taking model on the debates involving the civil society at large that the French Government launched last semester to reform the country, he hopes to replicate such debates at the EU level. Admittedly, the opinion article gives some lights of hope at a moment where the Brexit negotiations impasse and domestic actions undermining human rights and the rule of law occupy the central place, as well as poison the public debate to reform Europe. Yet, the proposals put forward by the French President may appear too ambitious. The disappointing results that followed his Sorbonne speech is quite illustrative. Furthermore, weakened at home, he may not be able to reconquer the European scene and take the lead of an overhauling of the European project. The question is also whether the creation of different speeds in the EU would undermine or by contrast strengthen the EU project. What remains sure is that the UK will not have a voice in such renewal, as well as in the potential reopening of the Treaties that the UK Government strived to obtain in the past. Emmanuel Macron nonetheless concludes with some reassuring note for the UK; within this renewed Europe where “peoples will really take back control of their future,” the UK will undoubtedly “find its true place.”
Chloé Papazian is a Research Fellow at the Brexit Research and Policy Institute at the Dublin City University. She is finishing her Ph.D. at the Faculty of Law of the European University Institute, Florence, Italy. Her thesis focuses on WTO subsidy law and EU State aid law. She holds a LL.M in European legal studies from the College of Europe. Her research interests relate to WTO law and EU law, as well as international energy and environmental law.