October 17, 2019
A dangerous game for the EU
Brexit aside, the really big political development in the EU right now is the sudden isolation of Emmanuel Macron and France in EU politics. We note a lot of French-bashing at the moment, and wonder whether there is something more to it than meets the eye. More importantly, are we about to lose sight of the bigger picture of what is at stake for the EU?
EU diplomats and MEPs are clearly no fans of Emmanuel Macron. He is an active foreign-policy maker who takes initiatives, disrupts carefully worked-out plans, works best with other EU leaders, and does not rely on their advice, as Rym Momtaz describes it brilliantly in Politico. The ambitious Macron is delivering one coup after another and moves with a fast pace hard to keep up with. To propose Ursula von der Leyen as commission president was one of his stunts. It cut the Gordian knot of the nominationsfor EU top jobs. France's No to open accession talks with Northern Macedonia or its warning over Brexit red lines show that Macron dares to stand out against the status quo and to create opportunities, even painful ones, that could provide a possibility for change.
French bashing avoids the argument itself. It was easy for everybody to agree the principle of linking the deepening the EU to enlargement on the debating circuit, but in reality this link never existed. The opposite view usually prevailed under the mantle of pragmatism and geopolitical raison d’état. This helped to push underlying divisions about the future of the EU under the carpet. The Germans especially have no interest in a deepening of the EU. We believe Macron misjudged Angela Merkel's willingness to reform the EU. He is not the first EU leader to misread her. Another problem is that Merkel’s influence is fading at home too.
The virulent criticism of the French rejection of Northern Macedonia accession talks or the EU parliament’s rejection of Sylvie Goulard as commissioner appear to be the EU’s revenge. But this strategy, too, comes at a price. Important decisions in EU politics have to be taken by unanimity. If the EU pushes back too hard, Macron may be less inhibited to exercise his veto in areas he deems important - the question of Brexit extension is an immediate one. So is the continuation of sanctions against Russia. And, as we write below, France is also taking a firm line against Germany on the EU budget.
France-EU relationships have been complex since the days of Charles De Gaulle’s empty chair. Macron, too, stands accused of not playing by the rules. Isolation is not a new experience for Macron. The gilets jaunes movement happened just when the French started to turn against their hyperactive and demanding president. It is also not a new experience for the French in foreign policy terms. They were known to play their chevalier seul if it suits their interest. This is game they know how to play.