Macron Is Getting Ahead of Himself on Europe

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- French President Emmanuel Macron has failed, at least so far, to revolutionize France, but he’s got Napoleonic plans for a European revolution. As his Republic on the March (LREM) party begins its European Parliament election campaign, Macron has laid out his plan in 22 languages and published it in newspapers throughout the European Union. 

Besides a passionate call for resisting nationalism and defending the European project, Macron’s election manifesto contains a number of specific proposals. Most of these would create new EU bureaucratic structures. A European Agency for the Protection of Democracies would help member states defend their elections against cyber attacks and manipulation; a “common border force” and a European asylum office would enforce uniform immigration policies for the Schengen area; a European Council for Internal Security would somehow include the post-Brexit U.K. and make collective decisions on defense matters; a European Climate bank would fund the environmental transition; a European food safety force would “improve our food controls”; a European Innovation Council would get “a budget on a par with thee United States” to fund technological breakthroughs.

To discuss all these changes, and presumably any others that may occur to him later (for the latest proposals are different from the ones Macron made in his memorable 2017 Sorbonne speech), Macron would like to call a Conference for Europe with representatives of EU institutions, member states, experts, businesses and the general public, which would have “an open mind, even to amending the treaties.” This idea comes close to refounding the union with even more institutions than it already has, though anyone who tries to recite the list from memory will quickly lose count; there’s even a special web page where one can search for EU agencies, more than 40 of them in total. 

The approach is typical of Macron, who appears to like throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Le Macronometre, a project set up by the think tank iFRAP, shows the president has initiated 60 domestic reforms, of which three have been dropped and the rest either have been legislated upon or are in progress. As implemented, though, these reforms vary in the degree to which Macron has kept his election promises; iFRAP estimates 27 percent of these to be broken, 40 percent more or less kept and 33 percent fully kept.

Macron isn’t content with this somewhat chaotic blitz because the French aren’t either: Though the president managed to pacify the worst of the Yellow Vest protests with massive handouts, LREM is polling about 22 percent, almost the same as Marine Le Pen’s National Rally. So he’s trying to fix the mess with a so-called “Grand National Debate,” consisting of thousands of local meetings and efforts to collect grievances and proposals online. A staggering amount of material has been accumulated; there’s no way to work through it without leaving most of the contributors unhappy with the results. 

In the European election, Macron’s position is complicated by his reluctance to join any of the existing European-level parties. His LREM has been linked to ALDE, the liberal faction that is the fourth biggest in the current European Parliament, but it’s more likely that Macron’s party will try to form a new alliance that would include some ALDE members. LREM is projected to win 22 seats out of 705, and it would take an enormously successful party-building effort to get at the kind of influence necessary to make progress on Macron’s ambitious plans, though of course France punches above its weight in the European Commission and the Council.

Progress would be more realistic if LREM joined the biggest group, the center-right EPP, also because the party of Macron’s most important ally on the European stage, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is part of the EPP. Macron, however, appears constitutionally unable to join any club that he won’t be running.

That’s a shame. Meaningful EU reform that would make citizens appreciate the bloc more would require scaling down the existing bureaucracy, making it more transparent and more obviously useful, rather than expanding it to handle tasks at which it has failed so far — largely thanks to resistance from national governments. Trying to reform it by dumping random new ingredients in the soup is at best quixotic and at worst harmful to the European cause. To achieve anything workable, Germany and France, which recently signed a new cooperation pact, need to agree on a unified set of realistic, solid proposals — and that goes for the major political parties, not just the governments. Such joint proposals wouldn’t get in the way of idealistic election rhetoric, but they would show centrist voters what they should expect in return for their support.

As it is, Macron’s approach merely provides more ammunition for rival parties opposed to more European integration. If this is what more Europe looks like, perhaps less is fine.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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