Following the French's President's ambitious speech on the future of the EU, Open Europe's Aarti Shankar explains why many of his proposals are likely to encounter resistance from other EU member states.

28 September 2017

On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron presented a hugely ambitious plan for the future of the EU. His speech, which lasted in total almost two hours, set forward a grand vision for Europe – highly fitting for a President whose election night victory walk was to the EU anthem ‘Ode to Joy.’ It also served to relaunch France’s role in the EU, after its voice was notably diminished during François Hollande’s term in office.

Those billing the speech this week as a key intervention on his plans for deepening the Eurozone would have been surprised at his relatively short discussion of the monetary union. Instead, he put forward an ambitious and radical vision for the future of the European Union, with greater collaboration in a variety of policy areas from agriculture to digital reform.

Macron’s vision sought to place “sovereignty, union, and democracy” at the heart of the EU. Developing his take on the traditionally French vision of a “Europe that protects,” he called for the introduction of a new European department against terrorism, and an EU civil protection system to ensure joint crisis response. He also proposed reinforcing the external borders of the EU with a new European office for asylum and a border police force. He urged Europe “not to turn its back” on frontline countries managing the recent migration crisis, and proposed raising a new development aid fund for countries of origin via a financial transaction tax.

On green policy, Macron called for the EU to lead an “ecological transformation”, starting by introducing a “just and sufficient” carbon tax to protect European industries and facilitate the shift to a low-carbon economy. He would also like to see the creation of a pan-European energy market. Interestingly, Macron supported reforming the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, criticising its current inability to adequately protect farmers and consumers.

On digital transformation, Macron urged the EU to set up a new European Agency for Innovation, suggesting that instead of criticising the fact that tech giants are largely American, the focus should instead be on providing the right environment for the EU to develop its own world-leading tech industry. However, at the same time, he called for greater regulation to manage the inequalities created by new technological innovations – in particular, Macron took a strong line on tax avoidance, calling for profits to be taxed where they are made.

He put forward plans for greater social convergence, suggesting that EU countries move towards a common minimum wage – even if at present these must be adjusted to the economies of each member state. He also emphasised the importance of a shared European culture, proposing the creation of European universities and a generation of multilingual students.

He called for an injection of democracy into the European project, with his plan to hold EU-wide “democratic conventions”, and reform the European parliament by introducing transnational election lists.

It was interestingly on the topic of the Eurozone that Macron offered his most restrained integrationist agenda. He began by suggesting that ideas to reform the monetary union were “not about mutualising our past debts or solving the financial problems of one country”, and emphasised the need for member states to ensure their own fiscal responsibility – in particular, he stressed the economic reforms newly set in motion in France. These comments were no doubt aimed to build German confidence in France. But he stopped short of setting forward new concrete demands, simply reiterating previous calls for a common Eurozone budget and finance minister. This cautious soft-peddling is no doubt the effect of Angela Merkel’s set-back in last week’s German elections (although the Elysée claim Macron did not alter his speech after the Sunday result) – the liberal German Free Democrats Party, who have openly denounced Macron’s Eurozone ideas in the past as a “permanent fiscal equalisation scheme”, are now likely to enter a governing coalition in Germany. But it also true that there has been long-standing German opposition to French proposals for more burden-sharing in the Eurozone.

Despite his support for a flexible Union, Macron proposes “doing much more together”

It is interesting to consider Macron’s intervention this week in light of the European Commission’s five-point blueprint for the future of the EU, published earlier this year. The French President described his vision as one of a “reformed, simplified” EU, prioritising efficiency and flexibility. He made much of his support for a multispeed Europe – reiterating his view that current structures of the Eurozone and Schengen already point to differentiated integration. Importantly, in the past, his descriptions of a multispeed Europe did not seem to prescribe eventual convergence, as per the Commission model. He has previously spoken of “a Europe of several formats”: allowing some countries to press ahead, not being held back by those who prefer to “progress slower, or not at all.”

But, after Tuesday’s speech, it is hard to marry his determination to create a variety of new EU bodies, new pan-EU taxes, and transnational parliamentary candidates with anything other than EU countries “doing much more together.” Many of his proposals also intend eventual harmonisation, such as his plans for an eventual common minimum wage and tax harmonisation. It is little surprise then that those in the EU institutions most sympathetic to a strengthened supranational Union were among the first to congratulate Macron on his speech:

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker welcomed his “European speech” and thanked him from his “support for the work of the European institutions.”

Juncker himself gave a highly integrationist State of the European Union address a couple of weeks ago, where he suggested that euro could become the currency of essentially all EU member states (although Denmark and Sweden could retain an opt-out).

The European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt – widely known as a European federalist – also praised Macron’s ambition:

Coming just days after Merkel’s bittersweet victory in German elections – and following a strong Eurosceptic vote in French elections earlier this year (reaching at least 41% in the first round) – it is hard to miss the reactionary nature of this speech. Macron himself said, “We are shaken; boldness is our only response.”

The UK’s decision to leave the EU has no doubt also served as a catalyst for his vision, with Macron recently arguing “more ambition” in the EU is “the best answer to Brexit” in an interview with Chistiane Amanpour. In Tuesday’s speech he went further, commenting that the UK could “find its place in a reformed and simplified European Union.” But, as Labour’s Caroline Flint noted at an Open Europe panel earlier this week, the UK’s decision to leave the EU was fundamentally bound up with a concern about continued free movement – an EU principle on which Macron has proposed no reform.

The path ahead will be difficult

Putting aside the question of Brexit, the difficulties in securing support from the other 26 member states should not be understated. Certainly proposals for the creation of European universities and the promotion of greater multilingualism in Europe are likely to be broadly welcomed across member states. The same is perhaps the case for the creation of an office to combat terrorism, with increased data-sharing – particularly given recent Eurobarometer polling shows 80% of European citizens believe the EU should have more decision-making powers on fighting terrorism. And, while there may be some cautious support for Macron’s plan to reform CAP, it will be just that – cautious. French farmers remain the largest beneficiaries of this policy, and it is unlikely the French president would suggest serious reform against their interests.

But other initiatives will be a harder sell. For instance, while the Commission will welcome Macron’s proposals for harmonising tax policies and ensuring the likes of Google and Apple pay tax in the countries where they make profit, low-tax countries such as Ireland may view this as a threat. Equally, the idea of introducing an EU border police, presumably with powers of intervention and arrest, is likely to worry member states who see this as infringing on national sovereignty and decisions over rule of law – Poland and Sweden voiced opposition to the Commission’s plan for a new European Border and Coast Guard Agency in 2015. Elsewhere, although Macron’s broader idea of facilitating a shift to a low-carbon economy should be largely uncontroversial, his proposals for a carbon tax imposed at the EU borders will likely face push-back from the EU’s Northern liberal bloc. And his suggestion that member states should “not turn their backs” on Italy’s struggle to manage the migration crisis may ring hollow in Rome, where the government has consistently called on France to accept refugees crossing the border – support for France has also recently been further dented in Italy after the President’s decision to nationalise the Saint-Nazaire shipyards.

Equally, while Macron may say he is willing to consider treaty change, the prospect of holding a referendum on a new EU treaty is unlikely to be unappealing in other member states such as Italy, Greece and Poland. On this note, it seems as though the sheer breadth of his ideas was necessary to provide something for everyone. His speech clearly aimed to avoid direct challenges against other member states: as Le Monde outlined, it is notable that Macron’s discussion on reform of posted worker directive did not restate his criticisms of Poland made earlier this month. Nor did he single out Hungary and Slovakia when highlighting the need to support Italy on migration challenges. That said, he made clear that a Franco-German “partnership” remained the key engine for European integration, adding, “We will not agree on everything, not immediately, but we will discuss everything.”

But what would Macron’s plans for eventual EU convergence will mean for those member states who choose in the long-run not to participate in his model? As with Juncker’s declaration that almost all of EU27 could take up the euro, Macron’s ‘flexible harmonisation’ would see the main locus of decision-making shift to the inner core (most likely of the Eurozone), and resign those left on the outside to greater marginalisation and underrepresentation in the bloc. It is for this reason that countries like Poland, who oppose joining the euro, are steadfastly opposed to a “multispeed” Europe – Macron’s plan will do nothing to ease Poland’s concerns.

After half-a-decade of a diminished France in the EU, it is good to see the President confidently take a seat at the table. But Macron’s speech raises as many questions and obstacles as new initiatives. He should not be surprised when he comes up against opposition from other member states on many of these ambitious ideas.