Mixed reactions to Macron’s panacea for faltering Europe show continental divide

By Feng Zhongping Source:Global Times Published: 2019/3/12 20:18:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

French President Emmanuel Macron issued on March 5 an open letter entitled "A European Renaissance" and addressed to European citizens, urging unity ahead of contentious European Parliament elections in May.

"Never has Europe been in so much danger," said Macron. The "danger" lies mainly in the lapse of confidence. Facing a chaotic Brexit, Europeans have started to question the feasibility of integration.

Macron outlined three goals: "defend our freedom," "protect our continent," and "recover the spirit of progress."

First, Macron raised concern about foreign powers interfering in the elections and appealed for democratic freedom. 

There have been worries over China's rising economic power within Europe; Russia has always been regarded as a threat, especially after the Ukraine crisis; and the continent has started considering the US untrustworthy, mainly after President Donald Trump took office. 

Second, Macron proposed to protect European security and economy. 

Macron suggested all member states increase defense spending and set a "truly operational mutual defense clause." The French leader who has lately faced protests in his country has been calling for the formation of a "real European army" since last year. 

Macron also reaffimed his usual proposals regarding fair competition on the international stage, and called for resisting those powers who "respect none of their [Europe's] rules." 

Paris and Berlin have already taken some steps. Last November, on the insistence of the two countries, the EU approved legislation to screen foreign direct investment to protect European companies. In January 2019, France and Germany ramped up pressure on the EU to approve the merger of Alstom and Siemens' rail businesses to take on competition from China in the international market. Although the merger didn't come about, the two powers haven't given up their efforts. 

Europe has attributed its decline to a rapid rise of other economies. In spite of differing views, this idea has prevailed in the continent.

Third, due to economic downturn, social security and environment protection have been overlooked. Macron proposed renewed emphasis on the two areas which "always defined the standards of progress." 

Macron's letter had a strong impact, but reactions have been mixed. European Council President Donald Tusk, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila and German Justice Minister Katarina Barley voiced support for some of Macron's proposals. Even Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a strong critic of the EU, welcomed Macron's initiative, saying it was "high time we speak seriously about Europe's future."

However, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš called Macron's proposal "divorced from reality."

Europe is divided between mainstream traditional parties and populist parties. Macron's letter mirrors the thinking of mainstream parties, but the populists have a different opinion. They believe that the continent has been bruised by the widening wealth gap due to globalization and cultural conflicts brought about by the refugee influx and illegal immigrants.

The fight between traditional parties and populist parties has posed a severe challenge to the continent. If the 28 member countries of the EU cannot reach a consensus, Europe's post-Brexit future will remain uncertain. 

Some officials portrayed Macron's move as "part of a bid to become the new leader of Europe as Angela Merkel prepares her exit as German chancellor," and suggested it was at least partly intended to "boost his waning popularity in France."

Macron has always hoped that his domestic reforms and the EU reform can support each other. Boosting approval ratings both inside France and throughout Europe is apparently on his mind. But things may not go the way he wants as he grapples with reforms at home. 

The best option for Europe is France and Germany jointly leading the continent, but in reality neither is ready to shoulder the responsibility.

Paris and Berlin are deeply mired in internal affairs. The "yellow vest" protests have put France in a difficult situation. Unpopular domestic reforms can only hurt Macron's popularity in the continent and erode confidence to push for European reform. Similarly, Merkel has had to face rising populism in her country.

Growing populism in the two core EU members reflects the expansion of anti-integration forces in the continent. Even if Paris and Berlin are resolute in willing to take the lead, they are on weak ground. 

The author is the vice president of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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