Macron’s European ambitions dashed

Gaël De Santis

In the debate on Europe, Emmanuel Macron is trying to sell himself as a proponent of deeper EU integration, in particular for its hard core, the eurozone. To this end, he has formulated several concepts, not least ‘European sovereignty’: the need for Europeans to unite to assert their influence on the world. He has also brought to the table several proposals—a eurozone budget, transnational lists—which European partners, especially German chancellor Angela Merkel, have received with caution. Domestically-speaking, Macron, being the good liberal that he is, is exploiting the European context to pass through reforms which aim to bolster competitiveness for France Plc.

The European Council meeting on 28 and 29 June sought to convey a rekindled alliance between France and Germany—in front of the cameras at least. Because while the Franco-German couple may present a united front, President Macron and Chancellor Merkel are not singing from the exact same European hymn sheet. On 7 May 2017, the night of his election, the French president made his entrance onto the Esplanade du Louvre to greet his supporters to the tune of Ode to Joy. Since then, he has been rolling out his proposals to relaunch the European Union (EU) and his desire for liberal integration.

1. A strategy underpinned by European sovereignty

The new president was admittedly welcomed with relief by the political groups in favour of the current direction of European integration, namely socialists, conservatives and liberals. His election was perceived as a blow to the rise of ‘populists’. Ultra-conservative leader Viktor Orbán was elected prime minister of Hungary in 2010 and has since attracted imitators in Poland and the Balkans. In France, Austria and the Netherlands, the extreme right is bedding down in the highest echelons of political power. The EU is no longer the big dream it once was, as revealed when the British electorate voted for Brexit.

Macron is seeking to promote the concept of ‘European sovereignty’ as a solution to the prevailing sense of alienation European citizens feel with regard to their future. In his European programme, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron professed: ‘It is time to conclude that, regarding the major challenges of our time (security, immigration, trade, digital), true sovereignty is a matter for European action in a renewed democratic framework.’ In short, to protect Europeans’ ability to determine their own strategic directions, decisions must be made at the continental level.

2. Creating a European identity and forum for debate

Like many federalists, Macron wants to create a European political space in place of the current situation in which debate is fragmented at a national level. Addressing students at the Sorbonne in Paris on 26 September 2017, he advocated establishing transnational lists in anticipation of the 2019 European elections. After the United Kingdom’s planned exit from the EU, 73 European parliamentary seats will be left vacant. To replace them, his plan is to compile a list of candidates of different nationalities that could be presented to the electorate. Rather than representing a single country, each candidate would be presented as a citizen of all member states. Voters would have two ballot papers: one for a national list, the other for a transnational list. The European Parliament rejected this proposal in February.

In a similar vein, Macron announced his desire to form a network of European universities whereby four to six such institutions from at least three different countries would work together. The proposal was on the agenda for discussion at a conference held in Paris on 24 and 25 May attended by 47 higher education ministers. The European Commission is expected to publish a call for proposals in autumn.

Lastly, Emmanuel Macron is attempting to identify the source of discord between citizens and European institutions. In France he took the initiative to hold citizen consultations, an idea that was originally conceived by the Commission. Some nations, like Ireland, have already started this work, while others have already or are expected to come on board. The fact remains that these consultations have garnered little support.

3. A response to dumping

President Macron seems to have understood that dumping is a crucial issue. Unfair competition has the power to jeopardise European unity and, as far as the middle classes are concerned, undermines the very idea of ‘competitiveness’ that is central to the economic policies advocated by European institutions and Macron himself. At the Sorbonne in September 2017, he shared his concerns that ‘today, Europe does not protect from social dumping; today, we have let the European single market develop against the very philosophy of our united labour market.’

His priority has been to take the lead on the revision of the posted workers directive, which is, in fact, already in discussion. French diplomacy has sought to persuade the countries of Eastern Europe, which benefited from the present legislation, of the need to amend it. The European Parliament gave its green light in late May. Only the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’ will not fully apply. Bonuses, thirteenth month pay, and inconvenience allowances (such as for working in cold conditions) that are in force in the posted worker’s host country will continue to apply under the revised directive. However, social contributions will continue to be paid by a posted worker in their home country, resulting in a different cost of labour.

In more general terms, Macron is considering harmonising companies’ tax bases and aligning employment models. This will primarily be effected by establishing a ‘minimum wage adapted to the economic reality of each country’ with the long-term objective of ‘progressive convergence’. On 17 November 2017, at the European Social Summit in Gothenburg, Macron even suggested ‘conditioning access to European funds on social and fiscal criteria’ to prevent countries from using it to implement uncooperative strategies. For the time being, European initiatives in this direction are not very forthcoming.

4. The future of the eurozone

The most ambitious proposals put forward by President Macron concern the institutional component, particularly the reform of the eurozone, which in his mind is the ‘heart of an integrated Europe.’ And it is on the matter of institutional reforms that he is encountering the most resistance.

According to Macron, this eurozone must be founded on two principles. At a joint speech given with the German chancellor in March, the French president called for the need to ‘rearticulate responsibility and solidarity’. In this regard, he is following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, who implemented the structural reforms Brussels expected of them in the hope of currying favour with the chancellor. He takes it as a point of pride to reduce the deficit, liberalise the labour market, and open public services to competition.

In exchange, Emmanuel Macron is seeking, as all the former French heads of state have done before him, to obtain concessions on establishing a ‘Europe of transfers’, an option scorned by sympathisers of Merkel’s CDU. Emmanuel Macron’s key idea, announced in summer 2017, is to instate a ‘common budget’ for the eurozone, which might equal several GDP points. The aims are to promote convergence and stability in the eurozone and fund investment. This fund would be capped by sweeping institutional reform: the common budget would be administered by a minister of finance and controlled by a parliament in the eurozone.

On this last point, the French president has utterly failed. The Commission is proposing a budget capacity of €30 billion for the financial period 2021-2027… in the form of loans, the aim being to support failing investment in the member states. It was not until late spring that the German chancellor Angela Merkel gave her formal response to Macron’s proposal. On 4 June, addressing the German Council for Sustainable Development, and in an interview with a journalist, she expressed her openness to an ‘investment budget’. But this budget is a long way from Macron’s proposal: the fund would be inadequate to cope with an economic crisis on the scale of 2008.

However, Merkel did back the proposal to transform the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which granted loans to a heavily indebted Greece after the 2008 global financial crisis, into a European Monetary Fund (EMF). This EMF would stop the International Monetary Fund (IMF) meddling in European affairs but would not offer an alternative to the brutal austerity policy Athens was forced to implement. Remember, of course, that Berlin refused proposals to restructure the Greek debt where the IMF did not. The EMF would have to interfere in national politics. It would therefore be a further addition, albeit with few resources, to the arsenal of political controls on states established in recent years under the influence of Berlin and Paris: the European Semester within the framework of the Euro Plus Pact (2011), an initiative that controls national budgets, and the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance (2012).

5. Consensus on a European Defence Union

Where agreement is strongest between Merkel and Macron is on a European Defence Union. Both heads of state have pledged to develop the European defence programme at a time when they are alarmed by changes introduced by their US ally. President Donald Trump is leading a protectionist policy that is hostile to European industrial and commercial interests. Furthermore, he is obstructing the meagre strategic progress secured in multilateral relations, such as the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015.

The work initiated by Emmanuel Macron’s predecessors had long-term goals. A Franco-German Brigade was founded and weapons production facilities pooled. Indeed, the 2014-2019 military programming act makes provisions to replace the legendary Famas, the French arm assault rifle, with the German-manufactured HK 416 F.

The Franco-German pair want to take things further. For Macron, a Europe Defence Union is not incompatible with NATO. What is needed is to ensure ‘Europe’s autonomous operating capabilities [are] in complement to NATO,’ as he explained in his keynote Sorbonne speech. ‘I thus propose to our partners that we host in our national armed forces […] service members from all European countries desiring to participate, as far upstream as possible, in our operational anticipation, intelligence, planning and support,’ he announced. ‘At the beginning of the next decade, Europe must have a joint intervention force, a common defence budget and a joint doctrine for action.’ His plans are motivated by the need to share French military intervention costs overseas with the nation’s European partners. In Germany, at a meeting on 6 June in Munich with the MEPs of the (conservative) European People’s Party (EPP), the chancellor reminded the audience that ‘German intervention in a specific mission’ requires a decision by the German parliament. A ‘common intervention force’ for Europeans means a ‘common strategic culture,’ in other words a common diplomatic and military strategy. To achieve this, she continued, a European security council could be established.

6. More equal Franco-German relations

Compared with his predecessors, President Macron is taking a new approach to Europe. He is not a member of any political group represented in the European Parliament, where he lacks allies despite sympathy from the liberals. He appears to be an equal to the German chancellor, who took several months to form a government in the wake of the September 2017 elections. With the countries of southern Europe clamouring for an easing of budget rules, Macron can afford to criticise Germany’s economic policy, notably its budget and trade surpluses, as he did in May when he received the Charlemagne prize.
‘As chancellor, Angela Merkel is politically profiting from excessive surpluses generated from export activities and now wants to maintain this unfair and untenable advantage. France would like to reduce the cost of its interventions and split them with the other European countries, especially Germany. Emmanuel Macron wants a European budget for investment, while Merkel is more interested in pushing for more flexibility in the labour market and a reduction in social expenditure with the aim of stabilising the euro through neoliberal means,’ sums up Gabi Zimmer, German MEP for Die Linke and chair of the Confederal Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left.

7. A left that offers an alternative perspective

Emmanuel Macron’s European budget proposal aims to buttress a liberal Europe. ‘As long as the Maastricht Treaty and its criteria are in place, a minister in the eurozone is obliged to observe its rules. Furthermore, this minister would be, as things presently stand, an additional instrument for reinforcing budgetary rigour and austerity, cutting public spending and pushing for a further reduction in investment in social security, health, education, science and research,’ warns Zimmer. She believes the situation would be different if ‘the fundamental principles’ of the EU changed: this same minister ‘could push for a public investment programme to usher in social and environmental transformation of the economy, a reduction in economic imbalance that would benefit poor regions and populations’. This analysis is shared by Anne Sabourin, representative for the French Communist Party in the Party of the European Left. In Macron’s politics she sees a ‘quickening of politics pursued thus far’ and the pursuit of ‘politics at the service of financial markets’. ‘A European budget already exists,’ she reminds us. ‘The question is really all about its purpose, and that of the European Central Bank’s monetary policy.’

On both sides of the Rhine, there are concerns about the danger represented by the militarisation of the Union, pushed along by the Franco-German alliance. Sabourin believes this represents ‘a danger to peace’. Meanwhile, Zimmer worries that ‘millions of euros that come from taxpayers will be passed on to arms companies, while budgets earmarked for the real challenges facing the EU such as economic imbalances, social issues and territorial cohesion are constantly being slashed’.


Presented as new, Emmanuel Macron’s politics appear, when all is said and done, to be a continuation of the right’s. They aim to promote national champions and open European markets up for them: large utilities companies in the electricity and gas sectors are benefiting from the opening of local and national public markets. Macron is fanatically leading structural reform policies to sharpen the competitive edge of French companies, while increasing business margins through lower labour costs (moderation of salaries, exoneration of social contributions). In this way, he is pursuing the measures advocated by the German chancellor. However, like his predecessors at the Elysée, he wants to see the EU pick up the slack on investment in infrastructure, hence his proposal for a European budget that promotes the EU in the eyes of a proportion of the electorate. But this comes at a cost: the Commission and the European partners are gaining more and more influence over the definition of national policies, while its citizens get less and less say.

About the author: Gaël De Santis is head of the world news service at the French daily L’Humanité, where he reports primarily on European news.

Translation: Justin Hillier and Marta Scott (lingua•trans•fair)


(1) En Marche! “Emmanuel Macron’s programme for Europe: a Europe that protects Europeans”,
(2) The first one was held in Les Vosges on the same afternoon that President Macron delivered his speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
(3) Speech at the Sorbonne, 26 September 2017.
(4) Ibid.