May 27, 2024

Macron’s Call for Greater European Sovereignty Could Backfire

Thanks to French President Emmanuel Macron, Europe has been talking about sovereignty since 2017. However, in Paris of all places, the term has been adopted by the growing nationalist movement. 

French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he speaks to the press, in Berlin, Germany May 26, 2024.
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Emmanuel Macron will receive the International Peace of Westphalia Prize in Münster on May 28. It is the second prize awarded to the French president in Germany after he received the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen in 2018. Macron is fairly popular in Germany, as he is almost everywhere in the European Union. He is, however, less popular at home in France, where the visions of the youngest and most pro-European president in French history have been worn down by the scandals and crises of everyday politics; from the Benalla affair, which saw the prosecution of one of Macron’s bodyguards for assaulting a protestor, and the yellow vest protests in 2018 to the unrest in the suburbs that led to the cancellation of his state visit to Germany in July 2023.

That visit is now finally happening and will be crowned with the awarding of the Peace Prize. It has been bestowed for services to European integration since 1998. The first winner was the Czech human rights activist and later president, Vaclav Havel. Macron deserves the award, regardless of what one might think of his political record. He has shaped European debates in recent years like no other leading politician. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel may have been the most important voice in Europe until 2021. But she was an administrator, not a visionary.

In contrast, Macron defends big ideas and does not shy away from conflict. Since 2017, his obsession has been European sovereignty. In his Europe speech at the Sorbonne University in Paris at the end of April, he credited himself with the omnipresence of that concept in the debates, which he considered to be a great success.

Overcoming the Westphalian System

The fact that the sovereignist Macron is now coming to Münster is symbolic on many levels. In 1648, one of the three peace treaties that ended the Thirty Years’ War, a “primal trauma” (as German political scientist Herfried Münkler put it) for the Germans, was signed there. One of the signatories was Louis XIV, the French Sun King, who was only 10 years old at the time. The treaties created the foundation of a new international system, which from then on was increasingly organized on the basis of the state monopoly on power and the mutual recognition of sovereign states. In Anglo-Saxon legal and political science in particular, the term “Westphalian system,” which was established in Münster almost 400 years ago, is still used today.

Macron is now being honored in the same place for his efforts to overcome that very Westphalian system. Since 2017, he has worked to “deepen European cooperation,” wrote the Peace Prize jury, whose members include German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party chairman Friedrich Merz, and former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. The French president, they added, had brought new impetus to Franco-German relations and maintained dialogue with the Russian leadership despite “serious upheavals.” This justification dates back to spring 2023, it should be noted. Since then, Macron has significantly toughened his tone toward Russian President Vladimir Putin who refuses to recognize Ukrainian sovereignty after more than two years of war, death, and destruction.

Macron Is No Federalist Either 

Macron is without doubt a staunch supporter of the EU. In 2017, he celebrated his election victory with the Ode to Joy, the European anthem. In the context of the EU elections in June, he is now campaigning for a “Hamiltonian moment” and common debt. This is what Alexander Hamilton, the first US Secretary of the Treasury, achieved in the late 18th century in a decisive step toward the federalization of the United States of America. The supporters of EU federalism consider joint debt and investment to be the most important prerequisite alongside a sovereign defense capability. 

Since 2017, Macron’s support for both has begged the question whether he is a federalist. This question leads to another French winner of the Peace Prize, Valérie Giscard d’Estaing, one of Macron's predecessors in the Élysée Palace. Giscard d’Estaing was honored in 2006 for his work as president of the EU reform convention, which drew up a constitutional text for the European Union. Even though the text was rejected by the French and Dutch in the 2005 referendums, large parts of it were incorporated into the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. Since then, the decision to ignore the outcomes of the referendums has become a symbol of the EU's democratic deficit. In France, it has contributed to the almost complete absence of support for the federalist idea. Even Macron, who has repeatedly emphasized the importance of national sovereignty, is not an EU federalist. 

Sovereignty as a Dead End

However, this is increasingly becoming a problem. The French president has maneuvered himself into a dead end with his vision of European sovereignty: he must accomplish the feat of credibly strengthening EU sovereignty without weakening France’s sovereignty in the process—an almost impossible task. 

To be sure, Macron has been able to score points in France with some European policy successes. The fact that the German chancellor agreed to joint debt in 2020 as part of the Next Generation EU program was seen as a success by all parties. And hearing the then finance minister and current German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, speak of a “Hamiltonian moment” raised hopes for the future in Paris. So far, however, it does not appear that the German government will agree to a repeat, let alone a permanent instrument.

So, while little progress is being made on EU sovereignty, others have hijacked the term. The European agenda of the French far-right party Rassemblement National is peppered with commitments to sovereignty. However, instead of developing it at a European level, Jordan Bardella, the party's 28-year-old leading candidate in the European Parliament elections, which take place in early June, wants to take sovereignty back from the EU. Bardella, who current polls show could win almost twice as many votes as the candidate from Macron's Renaissance party, is fighting for a return to a “Europe of nations.” In doing so, he is consciously following a long tradition of French European policy that was also defended by the first president of the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle, in the 1950s.

Macron the Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Macron has broken with this tradition, but he has never openly said so in France. Since 2017, the EU has benefited from the concept of sovereignty being introduced into the debate on its future. The European Commission, too, is increasingly referring to the need for stronger EU sovereignty—be it in health policy to combat a virus, in trade policy against American and Chinese subsidies for their domestic industries, or in foreign and security policy with regard to weapons deliveries to Ukraine, for example. In 2016, when British voters voted for Brexit and against the EU, a historic opponent of greater EU integration was taken out of the equation. Under Macron, France became a driving force for greater integration once again.

However, it is questionable whether the French change of direction will outlast Macron. Shortly after his keynote speech on Europe in April, the French newspaper Le Monde published a survey on the relationship between the French and the concept of sovereignty. The first terms that respondents associated with “sovereignty” were “nationalism” (22 percent), “independence” (20 percent), and “power” (also 20 percent). These terms bear virtually no relation to the EU; on the contrary, they refer to the French Republic and a strong nation state, which remains of paramount importance to many French people. Furthermore, 54 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that a combination of the two terms “European” and “sovereignty” would be “contradictory.” In the headline of the article, Le Monde spoke of a “major misunderstanding” between Macron's ideas and the French electorate.

Thus, with his ideas on deepening the European Union, the winner of the Peace Prize may have ended up introducing a term into the European debate that he can no longer control. The political scientist Herfried Münkler, whose seminal history of the Thirty Years’ War was published in 2018, warned back in 2021 that the EU would work only so long as no one raised the question of sovereignty. Macron has done so, and now risks becoming the sorcerer’s apprentice of European politics.

Jacob Ross is research fellow for France and Franco-German relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

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