Apr 03, 2023

Macron’s Next Big EU Push

Six years after his famous Sorbonne speech, what should be Emmanuel Macron’s next big EU initiative? A case can be made for Macron continuing to push forward his “European sovereignty” paradigm. But would that entail that he is now getting serious on EU institutional reform?

A Pariscope column picture showing Emmueal Macron
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What is the next move in Emmanuel Macron’s European Union reform offensive? Elections to the European Parliament are approaching. But what should his pitch to fellow French people and Europeans be, think tankers ponder?

Macron’s 2017 Sorbonne speech was about setting “European sovereignty” as a new overarching goal for the bloc and thereby overcoming the EU’s paralysis of the 2010s. But now that the battle of ideas has been won, it’s time for Macron to take on the EU’s institutional reform fatigue.

After all, that would secure him a place among the truly great in the EU’s history books and he might even have a square in Germany named after him like the (terribly grim) François-Mitterrand-Platz in Frankfurt.

There are two views in the French capital.

The Half-Full View

The first: Paris shouldn’t spend precious political capital on new grand visions. Even with its botched institutional structure, the EU actually delivers. Indeed, it is striking to what extent Europe has become more sovereign in recent years.

To see this, you need to engage in counterfactual thinking. Success in politics is often the absence of a problem. And having faced the quadruple shock of a global pandemic, a war on its borders, an energy crisis, and now financial market turmoil the EU does not need late-night Brussels sessions on whether to bailout out this or that country. There are no calls for China to buy Greek ports to spur growth. There is simply no eurozone crisis 2.0!

If European leaders today are not busy fighting for the EU’s survival but can focus on helping Ukraine stand up to Russia, then that is because they managed to agree on the €750 billion post-pandemic recovery fund in 2020. It is hard to understate the importance of this step toward common debt and spending not only for the EU’s economic development, but also its Weltpolitikfähigkeit, its ability to act on the global stage. On the financial front, the EU truly has become more sovereign.

On trade as well, Europe is becoming more resilient. Today Brussels can slap tariffs on the import of goods benefitting from foreign subsidies. State aid rules are being loosened, public procurement rules revised, and a new push for a trade deal with Latin American countries is under way (see also Anna Ayuso’s article in this issue). Europe is pursuing the right mix of policies to reduce its trade vulnerabilities.

On energy, Europe hardly imports Russian fuels anymore. This winter’s energy savings and the build-out of renewables is impressive. True, this is expensive. True, renewables create new dependencies. China builds most solar panels for instance. But once you have a solar panel, Beijing can’t take it away from you anymore. The more energy becomes a stock instead of a flow issue, the less Europe becomes susceptible to blackmail.

Finally, defense. The war in Ukraine has exposed Europe’s fundamental dependence on the United States for security. Yet it is also true that in this war the EU is emerging as a surprisingly capable actor. Europe still needs US President Joe Biden’s guiding hand, but it sanctions, it delivers weapons, it commits to enlarge—it’s Weltpolitikfähig. Félicitation!

Indeed, Europe’s unity in the face of Russia’s invasion is surprising. “Unprecedented” is a word that is usually on the index for any historian, but it is hard to think of an instance in history where the permanently squabbling Europeans have not only jointly condemned a sibling gone rogue, but also been willing to incur large costs to confront it.

Riding the Wave

Today, the EU is more sovereign, more geopolitically driven in its thinking and its actions than it has ever been before. Macron should thus continue to ride the wave and focus on milking the “European sovereignty” paradigm down to the last drop, some in Paris think.

France has as of late become quite effective at the Brussels legislative game. There are still lots of detailly, unsexy files in the pipeline from the electricity market to Stability and Growth Pact reform with big implications for the economy, but also the EU’s geopolitical capacity.

Moreover, implementing reforms already agreed is also a challenge. If one chart is starting to causing sweat in Europe at the moment it is the explosion of Chinese electric vehicle (EVs) exports to Europe in 2022. France wants to slap tariffs on China’s state-subsidized EVs. Berlin rightly fears Beijing could retaliate. The general view in Germany also seems to be that its cost-sensitive citizens will keep buying expensive Volkswagens over cheap Chinese BYDs.

Anyway, buckle up for the Chinese EV issue soon becoming the new big Franco-German dispute. Does Paris want to be distracted by a fight over voting rights in the European Council with Berlin at the same time that it is battling for the survival of its automobile industry?

Go Big, But How?

The second view goes something like this: Former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing is celebrated as the father of the directly elected European Parliament. François Mitterrand gave Europe the euro. If Macron wants anything to show for in EU policy that schoolchildren will be taught about in 30 years, he needs to pursue the path of deepening and democratizing the EU’s institutions, or so the argument goes. But how to go about it?

Macron could propose “Europeanizing” France’s seat at the UN Security Council. It would be a powerful symbolic move proving that Macron is willing to follow the European sovereignty logic to the end. It would put Germany on the spot to say what it is really willing to offer in return. But Macron won’t be France’s first post-Gaullist president. The proposition would create a huge backlash at home. And even if the proposition would have the slightest chance of going anywhere, would it really be key to solving the EU’s institutional problems?

The better, more classic proposition would be the triptyque of giving the European Parliament the right to propose legislation itself, moving toward qualified majority voting in the European Council on foreign policy and taxation as well as anchoring the Spitzenkandidaten procedure for the European Commission presidency in the treaties.

These three steps have been debated for some time in Paris, and there is much overlap with thinking in Berlin. France and Germany have set up a working group of experts to look into institutional questions and the way the EU works. Their report is due in fall 2023—ideal for Macron to take it as a basis for his European elections program.

But how do you get it done? After Macron’s Conference on the Future of Europe, a group of 13 Northern, Central, and Eastern European EU member states published a letter in which they declared themselves opposed to treaty change. But these countries are also the ones that advocate enlargement most strongly. Macron will most likely no longer be in the Élysée when the next round of EU enlargement is decided, but he could tie the two issues now. Gouverner, c’est préparer le terrain.


Another option would be to go for a sort of Gaullist-European synthesis: Propose to coordinate foreign policy in a Weimar triangle (France-Germany-Poland) plus European Commission format. Once a year the combination would jointly visit Washington, Beijing, and (one day) Moscow. There would be a commitment to send shadows to each other’s high-level bilateral meetings with these three countries.

Macron inviting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to travel to Beijing together points in this direction. But what if France’s president moved beyond ad hoc invitations? Such a proposition has the potential to break the habitus and rationale of national interest politics and keeps alive the mistrust between capitals that still belittles Europe. But it would do so without ignoring the fact that national leaders matter and that some countries have outsized responsibilities.

Thinking about new European formats in foreign policy is not only an amusing armchair activity. It is urgent. Not least because Europe has to start reflecting now about who will represent it at the negotiating table once Russia’s war against Ukraine ends. After the failure of the Minsk agreements, Berlin and Paris alone can’t be Europe’s envoys to Russia anymore.

The Weimar trio is no good either. As in real life, ménage-à-trois just don’t work. You need a fourth player, one that can break the destructive three-way dynamic and raise the debate to a European level. And you need an actor with actual important geopolitical competences from trade to energy: in short, the European Commission.

Macron and Scholz as the parents of the “Weimar+” format? Is that the way for Macron to get a square named after him Germany? À suivre.

Joseph de Weck is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s Paris columnist. He is the author of Emmanuel Macron. The revolutionary president.

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