No need for more conferences: Emmanuel Macron is The future of Europe.
With his decisive election victory over right-wing challenger Marine Le Pen on Sunday, Macron not only gained five more years as President of France, but also secured his place – for better or worse – at the heart of EU decision-making until 2027, and probably for many years after.
When he finishes his second and final period in the spring of the same year, he will still be seven months shy of his 50sth birthday. An extra number in a top job in the EU institutions is hardly out of the question.
But even as Brussels and most capitals across the continent breathed a sigh of relief over Le Pen’s defeat, officials and diplomats on Monday began to consider the consequences of an EU universe in which France’s self-proclaimed Jupiter truly dwarfs all other aspiring political stars – and can pursue its ambitious, integrationist agenda for Europe is largely unrestricted by French domestic policy.
In an EU still dominated, if not fully controlled, by the Franco-German dyad, Macron is now positioned to claim the cloak of newly retired German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But whether he achieves his lofty goals – which include deeper economic integration, greater independence from US defense policy and transnational candidate lists in European elections – will depend on his ability to persuade and entice other leaders to follow in his footsteps. create consensus and mediate concrete agreements instead of just agitating and arguing.
“The key to Europe is to find common ground,” said a senior national official who has spent many hours and late nights in the corridors of the European Council’s European Building, outlining the challenge now facing Macron. “Not a minimum agreement, it was Merkel’s legacy. Expand the space we all consider to be of European interest. That is the goal. “
In order to stand out, Macron must, in other words, do more than deal with crises, reactively, by finding the lowest common denominator and instead directing his colleagues in the European Council towards proactive policy-making that will demonstrate the EU’s usefulness to citizens.
A first test will come in just one month, at an extraordinary European Council, where the heads of state and government will once again struggle with how to tackle the sky-high energy prices – an increase exacerbated by Russia’s war against Ukraine.
“The best thing he can do now is go into the May 31-31 summit and get a deal in place to support European consumers,” the senior official said. “If he delivers this, given the impotence of the German coalition, there is much more he can do if he is pragmatic and sensible.”
Great French voice
Among the obstacles Macron may face in the coming years is collective opposition to a sense of French hegemony. He is already considered the national leader most responsible for the appointment of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and he is known for being extremely close to the Francophone President of the European Council, Charles Michel. After Brexit, France is also the EU’s only permanent member of the UN Security Council and its sole nuclear power, giving Paris an overarching voice in diplomatic discussions.
A Paris-based EU diplomat said it was a miracle to see France assert its interests: First, a French official complains about some political problem; card follows a paper, and then the paper is translated into a political proposal, which within a few months is more or less adopted in EU regulation. “This is the country I know with the biggest gap between how effective it can be in Brussels and the citizens’ perception that Europe is not French enough,” the diplomat said.
Brussels is currently already perceived as extremely French, and Macron’s victory, however welcome it may be, only confirms that view.
Among the challenges that Macron and other EU leaders will face in the coming months and years is the work on Russia’s war in Ukraine. On that front, Macron’s legacy of the conciliatory propaganda of Vladimir Putin and his failure to help implement the Minsk peace agreements will leave some leaders in doubt about letting him control the EU’s approach.
In an effort to become a negotiator among power brokers on economic and other political issues, Macron will also have to contend with more experienced colleagues, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who won his fifth term earlier this month, and Dutch Prime Minister. Mark Rutte, now in his fourth government. None of them will be particularly impressed that Macron has become the first French president to be re-elected since Jacques Chirac in 2002.
“He has certainly held his second and final election, but he will not be able to catch up with Orbán,” said a senior EU diplomat. “Then he has to form a government after June [National] Elections to the Assembly. “
The senior diplomat said there was reasonable cause to hope Macron would take on the European role. “Of course we hope he becomes the European statesman,” the senior diplomat said. “That would be good for all of us. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt for now.”
But in Brussels, the relief over Macron’s defeat to Le Pen is dampened by the right-wing candidate’s strong display and fears that Macron will not move fast enough to make room for a mainstream successor.
The French president is not exactly known for sharing the limelight, and his success in largely wiping out the traditional center-right and center-left parties in France has created a risk that his presidency for two terms, like Barack Obama’s in the United States, is followed by the election of an anti-immigrant Eurosceptic with little allegiance to NATO or the EU.
A diplomat from Southern Europe pointed out that in five years’ time, Le Pen “has a great chance, as Macron destroyed both the Socialists and Les Républicains.”
To prevent Le Pen or a similar extremist from winning in 2027, the Southern diplomat said, “We would need a strong center-right candidate.” That’s one of the reasons Brussels wants to keep an eye on Macron’s election as prime minister.
Macron has so far had only moderate success in pushing its EU agenda. Ideas for the creation of transnational candidate lists were ignored by other leaders ahead of the 2019 European elections. Macron pushed for the creation of the conference on the future of Europe, a series of discussions that would explore different ways in which the EU can develop and better serve the citizens. Whether anything concrete will come out of the conference remains to be seen.
Some said Brussels should enjoy Macron’s victory before beginning to worry about the future of either Europe or France.
Nathalie Loiseau, a key French Member of the European Parliament and ally with Macron, said she had encountered “a huge relief for all Europeans who have bombarded us with messages during the campaign and bombarded us again now to express their joy. It is very impressive. ”
Macron’s re-election, Loiseau said, means “we will complete what has already been done with digital issues and defense. We will accelerate the pace of the Green Agreement and we will continue to intensify things with Ukraine through sanctions and military assistance. “And we want to prepare for a meeting on the Balkans, which is particularly important as the region is going through intense tensions.”
However, Macron’s tainted record in the EU arena will also put pressure on him to downplay rhetoric and divulge details, particularly on topics such as “strategic autonomy” – the goal of making Europe more independent of defense and security issues.
It is not that ideas such as strategic autonomy lack “merit or substance,” said a third EU diplomat, but that in Paris there is “a lack of understanding that the EU is not a highly centralized republic.”
In other words, Brussels is not Paris, the EU is not France. “So unless Macron shows understanding and humility to those who think differently,” the diplomat said. it will be difficult for Macron to realize his hopes. “France,” the third diplomat stressed, “needs partners.”
Maïa de La Baume contributed reporting.