Emmanuel Macron’s speech at the Sorbonne in Paris this week, like the one on the Pnyx, was courageous, remarkably visionary but also incredibly tactical. The question now is whether he is able to rally not only Germany but also the rest of Europe behind his ambitious agenda.
Far from retreating following the German elections, Macron decided to double down, realizing the importance of momentum and of weighing as the negotiations to form the next German government get under way. He laid out a plan for deep institutional reforms to strengthen Europe’s executive powers and upgrade its democratic accountability.
But in order for these plans to work, Macron will have to overcome several critical challenges. German resistance is deep, and over the last few years its nature has profoundly changed.
In his speech, Macron described the Franco-German disagreement on Europe as the reluctance of Germany to concede to financial transfers and of France to concede to Treaty changes. But in reality, the opposition goes beyond that, in a strange inversion of roles. Germany was historically a strong proponent of federalizing Europe.
In the last few years, its trust in European institutions, whether the ECB, the European Commission or the European Parliament, seems to have receded sharply, to the benefit of inter-governmental institutions that preserve the German veto right and establish the German Bundestag as a parliament primus inter pares that can rule Europe.
For Germany to accept transferring more executive powers and more financial resources to Europe, it will have to be confident in a real leap forward in Europe’s democratic structures. Among other reforms, this would require a redistribution of seats in the European Parliament to the benefit of Germany, something that Macron has remained somewhat silent on.
Franco-German cooperation is necessary but not sufficient. While Southern European countries are in principle favorable to the broad direction outlined by Macron, the treatment of the migration crisis has left deep and open wounds in Greece but also in Italy. The blunt reality is that France has not been shouldering its share of the burden: Beyond the good words, there have been very few good deeds. If Macron wants to be credible in his promise to improve European policy on the matter, he should start by demonstrating France’s commitment to relieve frontline countries like Italy and Greece.
Finally, this institutional overhaul will need to convince Eastern European countries that they have something to gain from it. There is no escaping the reality that democracy and the rule of law in Poland and Hungary will create substantial points of friction. But Eastern European countries need to be convinced that they will not be relegated to being second-class citizens in a new reformed EU that puts the euro area at its core.
Establishing a reformed institutional makeup, with a leap in political integration and democratic accountability but also preserving the flexibility for countries that do not want to be in Europe’s core to remain full members of the club, is an immense challenge. It is critical to keep the Eastern bloc firmly tied to the EU, and if one hopes for the UK to eventually come back to its senses.
We are living an historical moment, there was always an acute need, but there is finally hope of a European spring.
* Shahin Vallée is an economist and a former adviser to Emmanuel Macron and to Herman Van Rompuy.