Written by: Clodagh Quain Researcher (Security and Defence), IIEA
On Monday, 4 March 2019, the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, addressed European citizens in an open letter published in newspapers across the EU 28 Member States. His public appeal for a “European renaissance” laid out a sweeping vision for the future of Europe with a number of new policies and institutions, under three broad pillars: Freedom, Protection and Progress.
The timing of President Macron’s opinion piece is noteworthy, ahead of the UK’s expected withdrawal from the EU this year and amid concerns of populist advances in the European elections at the end of May. This also follows considerable unrest at domestic level in France led by the yellow vest movement, which the President has sought to address by holding nationwide public debates.
Macron’s call on Europeans to formulate ideas on the future of Europe includes a proposal for a “Conference for Europe” before the end of 2019, as a venue for such ideas, although EU leaders are already scheduled to meet in Sibiu, in Romania, on 9 May to discuss the future of the EU27 post-Brexit.
This open letter follows on from four major speeches by President Macron. A similar landmark intervention by the French President at the Sorbonne University in September 2017 centred on the concept of European sovereignty. Although it also proposed an ambitious path forward for European integration, it gathered little traction amongst EU Member States.
The proposals in President Macron’s call for a “European renaissance”, shown below, address a number of policy areas, in which populist parties have been gaining ground: borders and immigration, competition and geopolitics, social protection and climate change. Apart from a passing reference to the euro “as a force for Europe to resist the crises of capitalism”, President Macron does not mention any of his previous proposals to reform the Eurozone from his 2017 speech in this open letter. Instead, he focuses on three issues: Freedom, Protection and Progress.
A higher resolution version of this diagram can be accessed here.
Response from Capitals
President Macron’s letter on recasting the European project was noted in Member State capitals but not without challenge to some of its substance. Unexpectedly, the letter found support from the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who welcomed the beginning of a “serious European debate”, despite differences of views between himself and President Macron on the topic of immigration. Views among other Visegrád members varied. The Slovakian Prime Minister, Peter Pellegrini, embraced the proposal as a means to change the status quo, while Czech Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, criticised the feasibility of the proposals, particularly with regard to the efforts made by Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania to meet the criteria and join Schengen.
Response in Ireland to the open letter was muted, as the political process of Brexit in the UK has drawn attention away from President Macron’s call for renewal. However, in addressing the risks associated with Brexit and with misinformation, President Macron appealed to avoid nationalist retrenchment, including a reference to “the risks to peace in Ireland of restoring the former border” in Northern Ireland.
In his letter, President Macron described false information as a “European trap” which in his view, underpinned Brexit and posed a threat to the Union. Rejecting this assumption, the UK Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, underlined that the choice for EU27 leaders would be the nature of a future relationship with the UK – cooperative or competitive. President Macron’s proposal for a European Security Council “with the UK on board” would suggest scope for cooperation in security and defence, albeit with no guarantee on decision-making power for the UK.
While some of President Macron’s ideas are new, others are already in circulation; such as a Covenant with Africa. Ireland is likely to view proposals for an EU defence treaty with some caution. It also favours retaining the current system for dealing with taxation issues under the auspices of the OECD, while the proposal for European champions is seen by others as an attempt to fashion EU competition policy according to the French approach rather than that of liberal market economists.
In Germany, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s parallel vision for Europe published in Die Welt am Sonntag on 10 March checked the French ambitions with concerns and highlighted the existing divides between traditional partners. The leader of Germany’s CDU Party and expected heir to Chancellor Merkel, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, was receptive to the completion of Schengen for effective border management. Yet she argued that a European approach to communitising debt, social protection and minimum wage would be ill advised. Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer’s call for an EU permanent seat in the UN Security Council was rejected by France as a consideration thereafter.
Differences among EU Member States have inevitably arisen in response to President Macron’s call for unity and renewal of the European project. Yet there is still symbolic and substantive significance to the President’s endeavour. It shows a degree of foresight, which at times is lacking in an era of persistent political and economic challenges.
Though questioned by observers, this letter departs from the norm and is intended to provoke a civic discussion among decision-makers. There is arguably merit in addressing a letter to Europeans who will determine the outcome of the European elections, the political composition of the European Parliament and influence its subsequent legislative activity. This will also be important to garner political support for policy ideas as the President’s political party LREM (La République en Marche) seeks allies ahead of the European elections in May. However, many disgruntled French citizens have interpreted the speech as a distraction from the serious domestic issues which President Macron fails to address to their satisfaction.
In the coming months, Member States will seek reassurances that a path for Europe will take into account national interests, however intricate a process it may entail.
Despite President Macron’s proposal for a Conference for Europe at the end of the year, the heads of state and government of the EU are due to meet on 9 May to discuss the future of the EU27, which presents a timely opportunity to look beyond some of the short-term interests and set a trajectory. Whether President Macron’s ideas receive any traction remains to be seen, but his ideas will certainly provide an incentive for debate on the future of the EU27 ahead of Sibiu, as will his closing remark that Europe may have to advance at different speeds, if it is to avoid remaining static.