Why Macron's 'Master Plan' for EU reform risks being stillborn

Frankly Speaking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder and Chairman, Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt details the case for a radical overhaul of the EU, and also examines the factors that threaten to derail substantial reform.


General de Gaulle famously believed his certaine idée de la France in the aftermath of World War 2 was key to re-building his country’s economic and political muscle. He and his successors in the presidential Élysée Palace can claim they also did much to shape the European Union of today.

But now the EU is rudderless and in the grip of a paralysing identity crisis. Une certaine idée de l’Europe is clearly needed to confront a host of daunting challenges. France’s president Emmanuel Macron thinks he knows what that idea should be, but few if any of the EU’s other national leaders seem disposed to go along with him.

He is far from being the sole political leader to recognise the EU badly needs a 21st-century update, but he is very much in the forefront. A few months after taking office in May 2017, Macron unveiled ambitious proposals for reforming and streamlining the EU. He chose Paris’ venerable Sorbonne university to outline to a student audience a plan he intended should echo around the world.

Macron has now underpinned his case for EU reform with a call for a radical new geopolitical stance

President Macron’s thinking ranged from controversial EU-level taxes on carbon-heavy imports and on largely American giants of the Internet, and included a new ‘disruptive innovations’ agency and the ‘mutualisation’ of debt within the eurozone that would target taxpayers in richer countries like Germany. In short, good ideas but ones chiefly involving political costs for all.

Undeterred by those nations’ lack of enthusiasm, Macron has now underpinned his case for EU reform with a call for a radical new geopolitical stance. Europe, he has said, is on the edge of a precipice in an increasingly unstable world, and must re-think its security and economic relations with the United States while improving them with Russia and China.

US President Donald Trump’s disdain for Europe has provoked widespread alarm and hostility in EU capitals. But Macron’s urging of closer ties with Moscow, and his comment to The Economist that NATO is brain dead, is deepening divisions within the EU.

Macron has been championing a much stronger European defence union

Poland and the three other Visegrad countries of central Europe, along with the three Baltic republics, have ineradicable memories of their treatment at the hands of the Kremlin during the Cold War, and still see Russia as a threat to their security. Public opinion in those countries looks to be viscerally opposed to any rapprochement with Moscow.

As well as his reform proposals, Macron has been championing a much stronger European defence union. Many EU member governments are, however, wary of anything that might weaken NATO. Add to that Berlin’s concerns that eurozone reform might increase the financial burden on German taxpayers that will be created by Brexit’s impact on the EU budget. President Macron has tough opposition to contend with.

Yet he appears determined to press ahead, buoyed no doubt by the fact that the EU evidently cannot opt for business-as-usual. Its dwindling popularity and the electoral inroads of eurosceptic populists are ringing ever-louder alarm bells.

Reactions to Macron’s reform agenda have been lukewarm at best

Macron can claim authorship for the idea of the two-year ‘Future of Europe’ conference currently being launched by the EU and its member governments. This device for consulting European civil society and asking people what EU they want may greatly strengthen the case for reform; it’s expected to contribute inputs on climate change and social inequalities as well as on Europe’s industrial shortcomings and stagnant productivity.

Reactions to Macron’s reform agenda have been lukewarm at best, and this has often been ascribed to the French president’s arrogant manner as much as to the desirability of his suggestions. The truth, however, is that political inertia and fears of provoking public hostility are the real reasons.

As 2020 dawns, the ball will be firmly in the EU’s court, and especially that of the incoming European Commission. It will be up to its new president, Ursula von der Leyen, to decide whether to take the political risk of giving unequivocal support to Macron’s reform drive.

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