By Susan Fogarty
Emmanuel Macron’s Vision of a Sovereign Europe: Rhetoric or Reality?
This week marked the first anniversary of Emmanuel Macron’s election as President of France. True to the name of his movement, En Marche, President Macron has positioned himself as a thought-leader on the domestic, European and global stage.
A key theme of President Macron’s campaign was his call to “reinforce European sovereignty” and in the presidential debate preceding the election Mr Macron stated that “true sovereignty is achieved at European level”. At the time, these comments could have been interpreted as mere campaign rhetoric: an appeal to French citizens to embrace their national identity, an attempt to borrow and reinvent the platform of a rival party, or an effort to rally a polarised population around a greater cause.
However, a year into his presidency, the term “European sovereignty” has lingered in Mr Macron’s vernacular. Over the course of the past year, it has been the theme of the President’s landmark speeches: namely, the speech he delivered at the Sorbonne University on 26 September 2017, his New Year address and his address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 17 April 2018.
This begs the question: what is President Macron understanding of this term and how does this influence the French leader’s vision for the European Union? On the one hand, commentators such as Lara Marlowe have argued that, in Emmanuel Macron’s discourse, sovereignty and integration are interchangeable. On the other hand, it could be argued that Emmanuel Macron is revisiting the idea of ‘pooling sovereignty’, and that he is advocating the further delegation of decision-making powers to EU institutions.
Emmanuel Macron’s vision for a sovereign Europe does not correspond to either of these interpretations. In fact, by shifting the parameters to which term applies, Emmanuel Macron is attempting to construct a sense of sovereignty that is synonymous with the more general notions of unity and the common interest, rather than frameworks for political cooperation. By adjusting the language and the ideas that are used in reference to the European Union, President Macron is attempting to reframe the European project in order to drive forward EU reform.
When he first put forward his vision for the future of the European Union in 2017, President Macron breathed new life into the European project, which was in a fragile state following the UK’s decision to withdraw from the EU and the success of eurosceptic parties in national elections throughout 2016. However, since then, Emmanuel Macron’s ideas for the EU have generated mixed feelings. An assessment of President Macron’s ideas and the principles underlying his proposals is, therefore, timely.
In order to grasp the European Union he is trying to construct, and whether this vision is feasible in the current political climate, it is first necessary to understand Emmanuel Macron’s conceptualisation of European sovereignty.
President Macron’s Understanding of European Sovereignty
Over the past year, President Macron has invoked the idea of European sovereignty in defending his proposals for EU reform, some of which have come under scrutiny by his partners in the EU:
a. Security and Defence Cooperation
In his Sorbonne speech, President Macron identified security as the first key to a sovereign Europe, or any political community for that matter. Over the past year, President Macron has expressed his support for a fully integrated EU security and defence policy with increased capabilities under PESCO. He has called for a common intervention force, a common defence budget, a common doctrine for action and a common civil protection force.
With regard to border management and asylum, President Macron advocated the strengthening of the EU’s external borders and the harmonisation of laws relating to asylum and migration across the EU Member States, stating that “the second key is ensuring our sovereignty, at European level, controlling our borders and preserving our values”.
Although increased cooperation in security and defence is supported by the Commission and many Member States, not all leaders share President Macron’s view. This debate could limit the scope of a future common security and defence policy, and would thereby restrain the construction of ‘sovereign Europe’ with security at it’s root.
b. Institutional Reform
According to President Macron, European democracy and sovereignty go hand in hand: “for Europe, sovereignty, unity and democracy are inextricably linked. And those who think we could choose sovereignty without democracy are mistaken”. This served as the premise for his proposals for institutional reform. The President mooted the idea of establishing democratic conventions to further engage citizens in debate and decision-making. These conventions were launched on April 2018 and they are due to be rolled out across France and the EU over the next year.
Furthermore, President Macron advocated establishing transnational lists in the European Parliament in anticipation of the 2019 elections. The President argued that the lists would strengthen the Parliament’s democratic legitimacy and would foster a sense of common interest among citizens and MEPs by transcending national boundaries. In his Sorbonne speech, the President repeatedly referred to the existence of a common European interest and stated that “If we want to build a sovereign Europe [the] Parliament of Europeans must be the crucible for our shared project”. However, the President’s proposal for the creation of transnational lists was rejected in the European Parliament in February 2018.
c. Reforming the EU Budget
For President Macron, a clear manifestation of a common European interest is the shared economic interest that exists between Member States. The President advocated a bigger EU budget with more EU competencies in order to finance the “common goods” the EU provides, which he says include “security, protection in the context of migration, digital transition, ecological transition, and a genuine development and partnership policy”. In his view, not only should the EU budget be bigger, it should be smarter. The President called for: the spending of EU funds on new priorities such as defence; the creation of a separate Eurozone budget; and the development of new ‘own resources’ such as a digital tax, a corporation tax, a tax on financial transactions and fees on carbon emissions. According to him, the EU budget should be reformed so that it exists solely to serve the common economic interest of EU citizens.
On 5 May 2018, the European Commission released a communication outlining its proposals for the upcoming MFF, which ruled out the creation of a separate Eurozone budget. Although many of the Commission’s proposals echo those of President Macron, including the identification of new priorities and the creation of a “new basket of Own Resources”, this latter proposal will be particularly contested by Member States in the upcoming negotiations.
d. Tax Convergence
The French President is supportive of the convergence of tax policies across the EU, stating in September 2017, that “tax divergence fuels discord, destroys our own models and weakens all of Europe”. The President supports the harmonisation of corporation tax rates across the EU, in order to tackle the “unfair competition” created by divergent tax regimes. In line with his argument on the EU budget, for Macron, the existence of a common European interest renders common tax policies necessary. However, the idea of a common tax policy is not supported by many Member States, as tax is deemed to be a matter best dealt with by the OECD, and is not appealing to Member States with low corporate tax rates.
e. Eurozone Reforms
Building the EU’s industrial and monetary economic power was identified as the final key to European sovereignty by the President in his Sorbonne speech, in which he proposed: the creation of a Eurozone budget; an EU Finance Minister in charge of the Eurozone budget; a body tasked with overseeing economic policy across the EU; and a separate parliament comprising elected members from Eurozone Member States. The French President is in favour of a multi-speed Europe, particularly for economic and monetary affairs. In his view, the differing economic interests of Eurozone and non-Eurozone Member States, and the absence of a common EU interest in this area, justify the deepening of political integration of Eurozone states. The President has said that moving forward through the “determination of the few” is the seed of European unity and sovereignty.
This final key to a sovereign Europe may prove difficult to mobilise as many central and eastern European Member States are opposed to a multi-speed EU, and would not support further integration of the Eurozone. Additionally, the German government’s opposition to the creation of a transfer union could weaken the Franco-German alliance, thereby curbing President Macron’s Eurozone ambitions.
Feasibility of Macron’s ‘Sovereign Europe’
Emmanuel Macron’s vision of a sovereign Europe, although attractive to some, may be difficult to achieve without the means to make this vision a reality. As Gideon Rachman noted recently, the French president is lacking the allies and supporters he would need to execute his vision. It is unclear who the President’s allies are in the European Council. Reforming the EU would involve the continuation of the Franco-German alliance in its role as the “engine of Europe”, yet, significant differences remain between France and Germany regarding the EU budget and Eurozone reform. The President’s support for a multi-speed Europe, and his criticisms of the rise of populism and authoritarianism in central and Eastern Europe, casts doubt over the possibility of alliance with the leaders of the Visegrád states.
At the domestic level his reforms have led more towards division than unity. In France, his controversial labour reforms have seen his approval ratings drop from 52% in December 2017 to 40% in March 2018. The immigration and asylum bill recently passed in the Assemblée Nationale divided the President’s own party, La République en Marche, with many deputies voting against the legislation or abstaining.
Furthermore, the President’s En Marche movement still has no formal representation in the European Parliament. In his speech to the European Parliament on 17 April 2018, the French President did not reveal whether the movement would ally itself with an existing party in the European Parliament ahead of the 2019 elections. If the movement fails to attain formal representation in the legislature for the next term, this will greatly inhibit the President’s capacity to implement his reforms, and ultimately, to construct the sovereign Europe he envisions.
Over the past year, Emmanuel Macron has progressively assumed a leadership role in European Union and global politics. The first year of Macron’s presidency has proven that the notion of European sovereignty is not just a feature of the President’s rhetoric, it is a distinct principle which guides his domestic and European politics. Moreover, for President Macron, reconceptualising European sovereignty is a means of both reframing the European project and implementing his proposals for EU reform by circumventing the polemic associated with the EU’s ongoing integration debate. President Macron faces a number of political obstacles which could inhibit the realisation of his reform agenda. Ultimately, whether President Macron will be able to translate his vision into a reality in the European Union over the course of his presidency remains to be seen.