The Once and Future Europe

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emanuel Macron, Bonn, Germany, November 15 2017. (Philipp Guelland / Pool / picture-alliance / dpa / AP Images)

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In late September, a century after the Great War turned Europe into a charnel house, European leaders gathered in Tallinn, Estonia, to consider the future of the European Union. The meeting was much anticipated. One reason was that, two days earlier, on September 26, French President Emmanuel Macron had laid out his vision for the EU in a lengthy speech at the Sorbonne. Two days before that, the German Bundestag elections had dealt a setback to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, or CDU, who turned in their worst electoral performance since 1949. Merkel would be able to continue in a fourth term as chancellor, but only (it seemed at the time) in a new coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats, or FDP, whose leader, Christian Lindner, was known to oppose Macron’s call for an expanded EU budget and an EU finance minister. Would the pressures of domestic politics compel Merkel to abandon her support for EU reform along the lines proposed by the French president?

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At the event, Merkel, the ever-cautious, ever-shrewd “Mutti,” or grandmother of the fatherland, as the German press has nicknamed her, remained sufficiently confident to stick her neck out slightly more than usual. “I am strongly convinced that Europe cannot stand still,” Merkel said in Tallinn. “We should very quickly enter into negotiations” on Macron’s reform proposals. But she simultaneously warned Macron to downplay those aspects of his EU agenda that antagonized the FDP.

Despite Macron’s compliance with Merkel’s wishes, Lindner announced on November 19 that he was breaking off discussions to form a so-called “Jamaica coalition” with Merkel’s CDU; its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU); and the Greens. Then, in another unanticipated reversal, Martin Schulz, the leader of the Social Democrats, or SPD—who had initially said that his party would not participate in a new “GroKo” (grand coalition) with Merkel’s Christian Democrats—announced on December 4 that he would enter into negotiations to form a new government. Significantly, this reversal was coupled with a call for closer cooperation with France on certain aspects of EU reform, especially in the area of defense. Macron’s proposals, which had seemed doomed after the German results came in, suddenly acquired a new lease on life.

Macron began his presidency with great expectations for what a close working relationship with Merkel could do for him. His vision of French domestic reform was one he was confident Germans would approve, since it resembled the reforms in the first decade of the 21st century that had transformed Germany from the “sick man of Europe” into the continent’s economic powerhouse. Macron had promised to liberalize French labor laws and cut government spending, and in his first months in office he moved quickly to make good on those promises. This year, and for the first time since 2007, France’s deficit may meet the limit—3 percent of GDP—imposed by the Maastricht Treaty.

Equally reassuring to Merkel, the French president urged similar discipline on other member states: “Everyone needs to reform,” as Macron put it in Athens on September 6. But for France, the relationship with Germany has always been what matters most about European cooperation. The enlargement of the EU to include former Eastern-bloc nations had been a German priority, not a French one. Macron was therefore perfectly willing to echo the German admonition that other member states must become more like Germany, since this was his recipe for reform at home as well.

The French president also made it clear that he shared none of the Keynesian proclivities that German conservatives fear. His plan for reviving the French economy eschews fiscal stimulus in favor of supply-side reforms. Macron is Keynesian only in his eagerness to unleash the animal spirits of France’s entrepreneurs; to do so, however, he proposes not to increase government spending but rather to cut corporate taxes, eliminate France’s tax on wealth (with the exception of real estate), and thus encourage new investment—particularly in the technology sector, which Macron sees as essential if France is to remain a global competitor.

Harvard political scientist Peter Hall put it this way: “Macron has a singular vision of what is required if France is to prosper, born of Silicon Valley capitalism [and] fixed on entrepreneurialism and the conditions that might allow it to flourish, including lower taxes and more flexible labor markets.” Although there are no guarantees that this neo-Schumpeterian diagnosis of France’s economic situation is correct, Macron, whose presidential style relies on the projection of invincible self-confidence, has staked his presidency on it. Now he wants to transform Europe, as he must if he is to succeed at home.

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By the time of the Tallinn meeting, Merkel, though weakened by the election results, was ready to spend some of her remaining political capital to help the novice French president in the hope that he, in turn, might help her find a way to resolve Germany’s dilemma of being “too big for Europe and too small for the world.” In Macron’s telling, the European Union would conveniently serve as a bridge between the middling states of Europe, led by Germany, and the emerging multipolar constellation of global military and economic power. Macron offered Merkel a geopolitical perch from which she could exert German leadership in Europe without exacerbating the growing anxieties about German hegemony. By allowing France to seize the initiative—and take the heat—for defining the new Europe, Merkel could continue to lead from behind.

Without denying the attractiveness of the offer, the chancellor remained characteristically wary. The details, she warned, are yet to be worked out.

Macron, too, recognizes the importance of details. He boasts that he and Merkel are among the few leaders who take notes at European summits. But he also knows that there are times when details are best avoided, or reserved as bargaining chips. And so it was at the Sorbonne, where Macron was unsurprisingly long on uplift and short on specifics.

In particular, he said little about economics. This, as he candidly admitted to the German magazine Der Spiegel, was partly to accommodate Merkel. He had taken the precaution of showing her a draft of his speech, and she had persuaded him that it would be best to avoid the “technical points” of his proposed eurozone economic reforms, which might complicate her efforts to form a coalition government. One formidable sticking point was Macron’s proposal to appoint a eurozone finance minister, which was totally unacceptable to the FDP and will remain problematic even if Merkel and Schulz succeed in forming a new grand coalition. The SPD announcement agreeing to new coalition talks omitted any mention of this part of Macron’s plan. In his Sorbonne speech, Macron therefore bowed to German reticence on this point, choosing instead to emphasize the “values and interests” that he believes, or at any rate asserts, all Europeans share.

Accommodating German political needs also served Macron’s larger purpose. By avoiding contentious economic issues, the French president was able to shed the technocratic image that opponents have tried to foist on him and instead wrap himself in the visionary mantle he so often donned during his presidential campaign. Rather than taunt German Ordoliberals with the prospect of a “transfer union”—which in the language of Goethe translates into “industrious Germans pay while lazy southerners play”—Macron could proclaim that his goal was nothing less than “the refounding of a sovereign, unified, and democratic Europe.” By staying focused on ultimate ends, he hoped to avoid the pettifogging squabbles that have often bedeviled attempts to reform the EU. “I don’t trust certain political debates that often lead to big things failing because of the technical details,” he told Der Spiegel.

To propose a “sovereign, unified, and democratic Europe” a little more than a year after the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU—and just hours after the German vote, which raised serious doubts about the country’s readiness to embrace far-reaching reforms—might seem unreasonably ambitious. But ambition, Macron proclaims, “is never modest. If modesty means only middling success, then I am not interested.” To those who say that he is unrealistic, Macron can point to his own election as proof that reality is malleable. When he launched his campaign, few believed that Macron could win. He proved the doubters wrong. Now he aims to do the same to those who doubt the future of Europe.

His gambit there is the same as his gambit at home prior to his election: to transform mundane debates about policy details into stark existential questions. Last May, the question was whether the French Republic would continue to exist if voters chose the National Front’s Marine Le Pen. Now, in Macron’s words, the question is “Europe’s capacity to exist in today’s world [and] to defend our values and interests.” That capacity depends on Europe’s “deep identity,” its “equilibrium of value,” and its “relation to liberty, to human rights, and to justice”—all “without parallel anywhere else in the world.”

Skeptics might be forgiven for wondering exactly which Europe Macron is talking about. Liberty was hardly foremost among the values that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán extolled in 2014, when he indicated that his goal was to “organize our national state to replace the liberal state.” Justice was not the purpose of the Polish government’s recent push to make judges more subservient to its will. Germany has admitted more than a million refugees and migrants over the past two years, while Orbán, anticipating Donald Trump, said in 2015 that all migrants “present a security threat because we don’t know who they are.”

Conflicts of interest are no less salient in Europe than conflicts of values. One case in point is the Franco-Polish clash over “posted” workers (workers dispatched from low-wage countries to high-wage ones—Poland is a major exporter of posted labor). Another is Poland’s dispute with Germany over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia (Poland fears that the pipeline deal will lead Germany to make unwanted concessions to Russia on other issues). And the populist protest parties that have arisen almost everywhere on the continent show that these conflicts not only pit nation against nation, but also segments of each country’s population against one another. Even within the EU’s individual member nations, deep conflicts of values and interests are evident, as the failure of the German coalition negotiations demonstrated.

Macron had promised his domestic audience a “protective” Europe (“l’Europe qui protège” is one of his stock phrases). But these conflicts of values and interests leave smaller countries and under- or unemployed workers wondering just who is being protected when Franco-German agreement on a carefully curated set of issues serves to mask discord on matters that loom larger in capitals other than Paris and Berlin, and in circles outside the ruling elite. When Macron blasted the Polish leadership and insisted that “illiberal” tendencies stemming from Poland and Hungary would not “define the Europe of tomorrow,” Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo called him “arrogant.”

This alleged arrogance is a feature rather than a bug of Macron’s “vertical” conception of the French presidency. He has studied the failures of his two most recent predecessors and believes they erred by talking too much about the “details” of taxes and budgets and too little about ultimate ends. For him, a leader with bold ideas is what the French want and Europe needs. A president, Macron holds, has to be more than a tinkerer with the nuts and bolts of government. His words must illuminate the political landscape and enable people to see a future they could not imagine on their own. The rub is that such flights of the imagination license adversaries to denounce the ambitious leader’s visions as hallucinations and reject his rhetoric as inflated.

At his inaugural, Macron ordered the playing of the European anthem, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” which speaks of the Götterfunken, or “divine spark”—the light that brings a dim future into sharper view. Like Charles de Gaulle, who was also called arrogant for adhering to “a certain idea of France” at odds with what others saw, Macron is proposing to his partners “a certain idea of Europe” at quite some distance from its current reality. “Europe is obsessed with talk of treaties, budgets, mechanisms, and processes rather than projects,” he protests. “That is no way to move ahead.” Instead, he wants Europe to project itself into the future, to lift its eyes from its yellowing covenants toward the distant horizon where a new world is just now coming into view. “We need to develop a kind of political heroism” and once again create “grand narratives,” Macron told Der Spiegel. The grandiose talk is meant to strike that divine spark, to give Europe new purpose and direction, without which its latent conflicts—which Macron feigns to ignore—may well end by tearing it apart.

What grand narrative does Macron have in mind? What might the new world look like? To begin with, it will be a world in which Europe has emerged from the shadow of the United States, under which it has lived since World War II. In Macron’s telling, this emancipation is one of necessity: The United States has begun “a gradual but ineluctable disengagement” to which Europe has no choice but to respond. It is the United States that is abandoning Europe, rather than the other way around.

Merkel agrees. “We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands,” she said last May. But to Germans, for whom the post–World War II occupation had created a false sense of intimacy with the United States, the realization that they were suddenly on their own came as a shock. “The Yanks have colonized our subconscious,” as a character in Wim Wenders’s Kings of the Road once put it, speaking for his countrymen, who were consequently psychologically unprepared for the abrupt weaning precipitated by the election of Donald Trump. For the French, by contrast, America’s inward turn comes in fulfillment of de Gaulle’s warning that Europeans were deceiving themselves if they believed they could always count on US support. While Merkel sees America’s disengagement as an unwelcome challenge, Macron sees it as an opportunity.

The impending British departure from the EU has only compounded the US desertion. Both events have forced Europeans to think more about their security needs. While they still worry about Russia, their nightmares are no longer filled with visions of Soviet tanks speeding westward across the German marches. What makes them uneasy today is rather the “little green men” in uniforms without insignia and vehicles without markings who appeared in Crimea and eastern Ukraine to secure Russia’s “near abroad.”

Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which Trump rashly repudiated before he was persuaded to walk his comments back, is in any case too blunt an instrument for the thrust and parry of such stealthy borderland skirmishes. As Angela Stent of Georgetown’s Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies pointed out in a recent talk at Harvard, these clashes hark back to a 19th-century world of ceaselessly contested superiority within a nominal “concert of nations.” According to Stent, Vladimir Putin believes that the collapse of the Soviet empire and the dereliction of the American one have revived this long-forgotten regime of constant jockeying and testing. Obliged to seek its place in the transformed geopolitical landscape, Europe, after lengthy deliberation, has just announced a new security scheme, baptized Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO.

This bland bureaucratic moniker might seem a feeble response to Macron’s call for political heroism and grand narratives, but Federica Mogherini, the woman in charge of EU foreign affairs and security policy, called it “the beginning of a story” and “something big.” Indeed, 23 of 28 member states, including Poland (a last-minute surprise), agreed on November 13 to participate, and this in itself was news at a time in Europe’s history when dissension is more frequent than agreement. Clearly, the perception of a new and fluid world disorder supplanting the stabilizing terror of the previous bipolar nuclear standoff has galvanized this nascent EU consensus.

Also, what “permanent structured cooperation” lacks in historical heroism, it makes up in political realism. In a world of simmering international conflict and repeated terrorist attacks, national legislatures wary of ceding budgetary sovereignty to remote European authorities may prove less stingy when it comes to spending on security. Different governments can sell PESCO to their citizens in different ways. To Germans perpetually worried about having their pockets picked, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has stressed the savings and “efficiency” to be achieved by avoiding a duplication of effort. Jorge Domecq, who heads the European Defense Agency, points to the bolstering of the EU’s legitimacy that will come as PESCO funds are directed to anti-terrorist measures, where even Euroskeptics concede that there is an important role for transnational cooperation. Elites worry about Europe’s geopolitical situation in the post-American century, while the masses, angry at the elites’ mismanagement of the economy, worry about the influx of migrants and refugees. A common security framework alleviates anxieties at both ends of the income distribution.

The quiet and undramatic PESCO agreement, a characteristic European product of protracted backroom dickering resulting in diffuse accountability, ambiguous authority structures, and lingering but muffled disagreement about ultimate strategic aims, might not seem especially relevant to Macron’s stated purpose of “refounding” the European Union. But the very nature of the EU, with its divided sovereignty, means that obstacles can rarely be surmounted directly; instead, they must be subtly circumvented. PESCO demonstrates how this happens.

By contrast, Macron’s idea of endowing the EU with a more substantial budget than it has now, placing it under the supervision of a eurozone finance minister, and subjecting it to the oversight of the European Parliament continues to meet with stiff resistance from all parties in Germany, even though it represents conventional wisdom among economists. What is more, Macron’s formulation of the plan has thus far been vague, particularly as to the size of the budget required for meaningful economic stabilization, the rules that should govern its disbursement, and the treaty changes that might be required to put it into effect—changes highly unlikely to be approved amid the current climate of uncertainty about where the EU should move next.

But these caveats miss the point of Macron’s method. His Sorbonne speech offered not a road map to the future but a pointillist canvas dotted with ideas large and small. If he was vague about the size of the budget or the sources of revenue that would fill Brussels’s coffers, it was because the individual dots don’t matter; all that counts is the general impression they create when taken together and viewed from a distance. A financial-transactions tax, enticements for digital entrepreneurs, a “gradual convergence of our social models…profoundly compatible with our global competitiveness,” “digital and environmental taxes” to pay for “common expenses”—each of these daubs on the canvas is just a hint of what might someday come to pass, not an actual proposal to be tabled at council meetings, where fierce objections would be raised at every turn.

At the Sorbonne, Macron was engaging in what the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs he so admires would call “blue-sky thinking.” He doesn’t necessarily expect any of the visions he laid out to be realized anytime soon; he merely wants to set before the people of Europe an inspiring image of what change might look like when and if it comes to pass. If he seems to be getting ahead of himself, it is merely because the “start-up president” is following the adage that the boy wonders of Facebook used to inspire themselves in their quest for ever greater market share: “Move fast and break things.”

Meanwhile, with far less fanfare and at a far slower pace, people like the PESCO negotiators are churning out the lines of code that constitute the actual software of the European Union. Little by little, countries will ramp up their contributions to the common security fund, which will become an increasingly important component of the central budget. Officials will jockey over its control. Their decisions will be debated by the European Parliament. Slowly, gradually, and, pace Macron, unheroically, the meaning of “democracy” and “sovereignty” in the European context will change.

But if the reality of European change is so prosaic, why wrap it in the tropes of epic transformation? For the same reason that Macron entitled his campaign book Revolution! but, once elected, appointed a trio of center-right politicians to shepherd modest supply-side reform along a series of well-established paths. Centrist government presumes that the machinery in place is sound and merely needs to be properly staffed and routinely oiled. Merkel excels at this style of management. Twelve years ago, she took the helm of an established firm and has kept it running smoothly and quite profitably ever since.

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Macron belongs to a younger generation. He is restless and impatient, and the firm he inherited needs to modernize if it is to continue to compete. His challenge is to keep the old machinery running while he spins off new ventures. He must bring in new blood, inspire innovations, and open up new markets. He must operate on two planes, in two different modes, as both conservator and founder. He is both the staid chairman of the board in his impeccable bespoke suits and the scrappy, unconventional new-economy guru who berates his less driven collaborators as “lazy good-for-nothings” (fainéants) and exhorts them to work harder and get with the program. Just as Steve Jobs transformed entrepreneurship into a kind of performance art, Macron would like to transform statesmanship.

Some observers see Macron, who once served as assistant to the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, for a political theorist manqué, as a modern-day philosopher king. But this is incorrect: He is above all an actor, whose first love was theater—so much so that he married his theater teacher, with whom he collaborated on a play. He and the decidedly untheatrical Merkel are now the stars of Europa, a play written in Paris, whose Sorbonne premiere garnered decent reviews but that now must prove itself on the road.

Macron’s thespian flair may well serve both Merkel and Schulz, her equally unhistrionic partner. The two German leaders face restive bases at home, where hostility to a new grand coalition is so intense in certain quarters that it has given rise to a Twitter hashtag, #NoGroKo. Merkel has had to contend with opposition from her Bavarian partner, the CSU, whose leader, Horst Seehofer, has just agreed to step down as first minister of Bavaria while retaining his position as party leader. Meanwhile, Schulz has to explain to his rank and file why another GroKo, which many blame for the party’s declining popularity, has suddenly become a good idea again. Both can avail themselves, as Macron has done, of the potential for EU reform to serve as a distraction from the humdrum of politics as usual—“the strong and slow boring of hard boards,” as Max Weber described it. Macron’s genius is to have divined the need for such diversion, but his ability to satisfy it has yet to be demonstrated. Merkel and Schulz may be in a position to help themselves by helping him. The future of the European Union hangs on their joint success.