Macron vowed to change the EU – but his chance may have gone

Last week’s European Union summit on Brexit may have looked like a unique case of Emmanuel Macron finding himself extremely isolated in Europe. Rather, it was the latest proof that the French president’s European strategy needs a profound rethink. Two years ago Macron took France and Europe by storm. For the first time, he had been elected on a staunchly pro-EU platform. This opened the door to potentially momentous changes in the EU.

Britain’s vote to leave, the aftermath of the transatlantic financial crisis, and the failed 2005 French and Dutch referendums on the EU constitution project had already made clear that institutional reforms were needed. In sweeping speeches, Macron set out a bold vision. But now that ambition has waned, and many hopes have evaporated. His European strategy contained important flaws, and he made mistakes in trying to deliver it.

In line with French diplomatic tradition, Macron thought early on that the key to turning Europe around was to prioritise and kickstart the Franco-German relationship. He sought to prove a commitment to fiscal rectitude and economic reforms, even though EU fiscal rules were inept and impossible to meet (France will breach the 3% deficit rule this year), but German scepticism was impossible to overcome. Obsessing with Franco-German bilateralism proved illusory because it ignored the profound changes that had taken place in the last decade, both in Germany and in Europe.

 Limiting a European strategy to securing a deal with the German chancellor hinged on the belief that European negotiations were exclusively Chefsache (the realm of the boss). It reflected a concept of power and influence that is rooted in France’s centralised presidential system. Germany’s political culture, however, depends on party coalitions and gives trade unions, business leaders, thinktanks and civil society a central role. Even if you set aside Merkel’s cautiousness, there was no chance she would take a leap outside Germany’s comfort zone on her own, without a push from German opinion formers. Yet Macron failed to engage with them, let alone convince them.

When Macron did secure Franco-German agreements, they swiftly faced opposition from the rest of the EU. Agreeing on paper to a eurozone budget and a move towards macroeconomic stability (the June 2018 Franco-German Meseberg declaration) did take diplomatic prowess. But it was immediately shot down by a Dutch-led coalition and was never agreed by the European council. This episode illustrated how the euro crisis, EU enlargement and Brexit had profoundly changed Europe’s internal dynamics, upending the notion of a Franco-German alliance capable of rallying others.

While new coalitions emerged within the bloc (the Visegrád 4 group in central Europe, and the Hanseatic League initiated by the Netherlands), Macron failed to organise his own grouping. He didn’t respond to the reality that European politics had become fundamentally transnational. While there was keen interest in his En Marche! movement’s pledge to “Europeanise” itself, he repeatedly stuck to bilateral negotiations at the expense of a genuinely non-partisan, cross-border alliance that could have shaken Germany’s dominance over EU politics.

His August 2017 tour of central Europe focused on getting separate governments to agree to his plans for cosmetic changes to EU rules for postedworkers (those sent by an employer to work in another member state on a temporary basis). But little effort was put into building durable ties with liberal political forces. After Italy’s traumatic March 2018 elections, Macron kept thinking Matteo Renzi, the marginalised former Italian prime minister, was a key interlocutor, and failed to support president Sergio Mattarella’s calls to form a governing coalition that would have excluded the far-right League, and offered France a much more reliable partner.

In Spain, while pretending to speak with every progressive and pro-European force, En Marche! sealed an exclusive relationship with the centre-right Ciudadanos, instead of turning prime minister Pedro Sánchez and his Socialist party into the allies they might have been.

When Macron finally did decide to reach out to European citizens with his “renaissance” call, published in 28 countries last month, it was too late. Europe’s leaders had lost confidence in his sincerity, its citizens had moved on, and its parties had solidified their allegiances.

This all means the upcoming EU elections won’t bring about the change we hoped to see in 2017. Macron will have little choice but to join the centrist and liberal group in the European parliament. Once a beacon of hope for change, the president risks turning into a junior coalition partner in the management of a status quo in Europe.

Such mistakes could have been avoided if he’d genuinely embraced transnational politics, engaged with European civil society and spent time exporting his calls for renewal. But that would have required a sincere belief in horizontal, bottom-up politics.

Macron has missed his chance to secure a leadership position in Europe and be seen as a credible agent of change. This wouldn’t have happened if he’d earlier on accepted some friction in the Franco-German relationship – for example, by challenging European fiscal rules or blocking the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia (the move would have earned him tremendous support in southern and eastern Europe). One opportunity he could still seize would be to refuse to back Germany and its scandal-ridden car industry in the tariffs row with the US. That could yet be a turning point.

So far, Macron’s ill-judged focus on those perceived bilateral interests has taken precedence over his transformation agenda. That has cost him and the European project dearly. He needs to revamp his strategy.

• Shahin Vallée is a French economist, and was an adviser to Emmanuel Macron when he was economy minister

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