French President Emmanuel Macron gives a speech on February 28, 2019 in Pessac, southwestern France, during a debate with women focused on women social situations. (Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP)NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP/Getty Images
© AFP

Emmanuel Macron is back where he likes to be — on the front foot presenting ideas for “European renewal”.

Published in 28 newspapers across Europe on Tuesday, the French president’s address to European citizens marks the beginning of his campaign for the EU parliamentary elections in May. Appealing to voters, rather than policymaking elites, he proposes reforms to immigration, defence and trade to make a Europe that better “protects” its citizens, companies and values — a mantra the French president outlined after his victory against far-right Eurosceptic presidential candidate Marine Le Pen two years ago.

“It’s clearly aimed in the main at French voters, to show them that France is not alone in Europe and has a leadership role,” said Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, senior policy fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank.

But Mr Macron — who sees himself as the champion of a united and liberal Europe — is also appealing to France’s EU partners to try to show them that his integrationist ideas could continue to win support in the European Parliament despite the recent rise of nationalist, rightwing parties.

“The important point is Macron is back on the offensive in Europe,” said Zaki Laidi, professor at Sciences Po university in Paris. “Nobody else is making such proposals or even counter-proposals.”

Eighteen months ago the French president laid out a sweeping vision for a stronger EU at the Sorbonne university. Although some measures were adopted, his address was greeted with a shrug by a German government absorbed in coalition negotiations. A plan to bolster the eurozone, his flagship reform, fell short of his ambitions following grinding negotiations with Berlin. Mr Macron’s domestic political troubles then depleted his credibility in Europe, while political momentum swung in favour of Eurosceptic leaders such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini.

The flag of the European Union and the British national flags are flown on poles during a demonstration by remain in the EU outside spporters the Palace of Westminster in London, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. British Prime Minister Theresa May says she will give British lawmakers a choice of approving her divorce agreement, leaving the EU March 29 without a deal or asking to delay Brexit by up to three months. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
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The Brexit ‘trap’ — but no contentious eurozone reforms

In his column, Mr Macron avoids direct confrontation with European populists. Brexit, rather than Eurosceptic leaders in Rome or Budapest, is Mr Macron’s hook to warn of the threat of “nationalist retrenchment”. The French leader meanwhile proposes little that would rile Berlin: there is no mention of the eurozone at all.

And this time the response from German political leaders has been more enthusiastic.

“Emmanuel Macron has sent out a decisive signal for the cohesion of Europe,” said Olaf Scholz, deputy chancellor and finance minister.” I think he’s right: our actions should be determined by confidence, not scepticism.”

Others said the onus was now on German chancellor Angela Merkel to respond.

Norbert Roettgen, a CDU member of the Bundestag and head of the influential foreign affairs committee, said: “Macron has shown us how to do it: how about some proposals from Germany?!”

Franziska Brantner, Green MP, the party spokesperson on Europe, said Mr Macron’s intervention was “the last chance for Ms Merkel to show that she’s prepared to take a risk for European cohesion”.

Sharing refugee burden in exchange for stronger borders

The most far-reaching of Mr Macron’s ideas is for a refounding of the Schengen area of passport-free travel encompassing 22 countries. Mr Macron wants membership to be conditional on acceptance of common asylum rules and procedures, an EU border force and European solidarity, meaning sharing the burden of refugee inflows, all anathema to anti-immigration governments in Hungary or Poland.

Camino Mortera-Martinez, of the Centre for European Reform think-tank in Brussels, calls the idea of a Schengen revamp “a good one”. “It is like the euro: You can’t have a system of open borders without some kind of supervisory mechanism,” she added.

The EU has a border control agency — Frontex — which co-ordinates and supports national border forces. Creating a fully operational EU force that could intervene when nation agencies fail would be unpopular in some countries where governments want to retain control over immigration enforcement.

Soldiers marching
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Olive branch to UK on security

On security, the French president departs from his previous operational focus on a common intervention force, defence budget and military doctrine in favour of a whole new “defence and security treaty” enshrining obligations to increase defence spending (which Germany would inevitably dislike) and a “truly operational mutual defence clause”.

Mr Macron even extends an olive branch to Britain saying it could be a member of a new European Security Council “to prepare our collective decisions” — but perhaps not necessarily make them.

“Given what is happening with Brexit, he’s surprisingly amiable towards the UK,” said Pascal Lamy, former European trade commissioner.

‘Buy European’ idea is back — again

On trade, Mr Macron proposes “penalties or a ban in Europe on businesses that compromise our strategic interests and fundamental values such as environmental standards, data protection and the payment of taxes”.

The EU already has certain authority in this respect, such as fines for data-protection breaches or annulling corporate tax deals that are deemed a form of state aid. But he seems to be suggesting more sweeping powers. He wants the EU to emulate China and the US in the “adoption of European preference”.

Treaty changes

The French president concludes by calling for a “Conference for Europe” to come up with new policies and institutions, if necessary with changes to EU treaties. This seems unrealistic given the lack of appetite in other capitals and the risk of opening a Pandora’s box for Eurosceptics.

It also underlines the challenge Mr Macron faces in turning his ideas into reality. Disagreements are inevitable, Mr Macron says, but better to advance than remain static, even if this means only smaller groups of EU countries join in, a reference to a multi-speed Europe that is implicit throughout his intervention.

Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin

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