On the day after German elections indicated a clear setback for pro-European forces, French President Emmanuel Macron chose to deliver an ambitious programmatic speech for the future of Europe at the renowned Sorbonne University in Paris.
This is typical for him. Whereas many leaders seek to navigate between political hurdles, Macron usually chooses to confront them head first. The frenchman seems determined to stir up the European hornet’s nest, even if it hurts. Contrary to his predecessors, he has recognized the inevitable growing popular support for populist parties in Europe, from the Front National to the Alternative für Deutschland.
Yet Macron has run a decidedly pro-European presidential campaign for he knows that, as polling shows, a majority of Europeans support the European ideal even if they feel disappointed by the absence of a unifying vision for the future. While European governments traditionally blame domestic problems on Brussels, Macron deliberately advertised the European project as an enabler rather than using it as a scapegoat.
On Tuesday, before a crowd of young students, the French president doubled down. He publicly acknowledged that the seven decades old model of European integration is obsolete and needs to be shaken up. He made the case for taking a quantum leap towards a more complete, more united and democratic European Union. According to his plans, the Eurozone should be completed with a common budget and a common finance minister and the Schengen area should be protected with a common border police.
He called to protect the values of the founding fathers as the European Commission is stepping up infringement proceedings against Warsaw for new rules it alleges are incompatible with E.U. law. In an effort to fight off populism, he proposed to make the European Parliament more representative of European citizens by introducing transnational lists as early as 2019. He came out as a truly European president, with a speech aimed to resonate as a direct appeal to the peoples as much as to their leaders.
The European Union, he insisted, will thrive only if the most willing members are freed to pursue integration further, unhinged by others. The French president realizes that his comments will probably echo more positively in South Europe than in Poland, but he expects to create a positive political dynamic across the European Union. The level of ambition is high and implementing the entire plan would probably require revising E.U. treaties.
Germany’s reaction will be closely assessed, as it is unclear how a freshly re-elected Angela Merkel in search of a ruling coalition will respond to his proposals. The German chancellor might balk at the proposal to deepen economic integration and create a Eurozone budget, even if the French president links it to the implementation of far-reaching reforms of the French labor market. To sweeten the pill, Macron offered increased cooperation on the common asylum policy, an accommodating step that might offer Germany political relief.
Aware that many voters blame the Europe for being a Trojan horse of globalization that imports instability from the outer world through migration and terrorism, Macron wants the E.U. to protect its citizens. He called for more “European sovereignty,” which is unheard of from the president of a proudly independent nation like France. In a context where Russia’s conduct of Zapad 2017 revived fear of its geopolitical assertiveness among Eastern Europeans, the French president made the case for a strengthened European defense.
The French president praised the United States for its ability to trigger innovation in the military domain and called for the creation of a European military research and development agency. He also proposed to tackle the perceived lack of coordination among Europeans in the fight against the Islamic State by establishing a new intelligence academy and empowering the European prosecutor’s office to tackle terrorism.
Such a strong pro-European stance might be received with skepticism in Washington, where wariness toward deeper E.U. integration is the norm. But this time President Trump might have a more benevolent look at the initiative. Since he took office, he has been constantly complaining about the so-called weakness of institutions and political leaders in Europe, going on Twitter to argue with the British authorities or Merkel.
By contrast, Trump and Macron respect each other. Though they articulate opposite visions of the world, the U.S. president has had high praise for Macron’s personality and resolve. With his bold moves, the French president may even end up convincing president Trump that the E.U. is a valuable partner. At a time when the international liberal order is under threat, a stronger, more united and more democratic European Union is in America’s interests.