Emmanuel Macron is determined to reform the European Union – if he succeeds he might pave Britain’s way back in, argues Alan Lockey
The symbolism was inescapable. As the masses thronged in the courtyard of the Palais du Louve, the tenth president of the Fifth Republic strode out to meet them backed by a cacophonous rendition of ‘Ode to Joy’. Quick-witted camera operators picked out the ‘stars of unity’ flags drowning in a sea of tricolores. Meanwhile, Europe collectively exhaled. The Strasbourg show is still on the road; the Brussels bandwagon rolls on. For now at least, Europe has won.
And yet as European politics wakes up to the meaning of Emmanuel Macron, there is a growing realisation that his election places two of Europe’s great powers irrevocably upon a collision course. Just not, as our increasingly narcissistic election debate reasons, between France and Britain. No, the battle Macron seeks is not with Britain but with Germany. And it is this defining clash that should occupy the United Kingdom’s Brexit-watchers. For the outcome will shape the political and economic fortunes of the Europe for a generation – and the range of possibilities is huge.
Besides which, the truth is there is no such thing as a French position on ‘Brexit’. Even if Macron’s gnomic utterances on Brexit did deviate from the European mainstream – which they do not – then that would be neither here nor there. The 27 will negotiate as one, British divide and rule will not be tolerated, and their stance remains crystal clear. Yes, we will get a deal but no, it will not include picked cherries or cakes that can be simultaneously had and eaten. Schrödinger’s cat may well be one of the continent’s most singular intellectual achievements. But we really must stop using it as a guide for our diplomacy.
Instead we should focus upon the relationship between France and Germany. For Macron, uniquely, has placed European reform at the beating heart of his mandate. Most campaigning politicians run a mile from European politics unless, like Theresa May, it is useful as a conduit for nationalistic showboating. But Macron is not like most politicians. To allow the European Union status quo to continue, he said, would be a ‘Frexit’-inducing ‘betrayal’. For him, change, in Brussels and Berlin as much as Paris, is the only available option.
What he wants is for Germany to reflate its economy, reduce its current account surplus by prioritising consumer spending and contribute to stimulating demand throughout southern Europe. That alone would rattle decades of teutonic cultural aversion to debt and deficits but at the European-level Macron goes further. For Brussels, he proposes a whole new level of fiscal integration, including full banking union, the issuing of Euro-denominated debt, a common fiscal policy and even joint finance ministers. In doing so he is guided by a clear and non-negotiable mission. He believes such radicalism is necessary to save the Euro. And almost by definition, the entire European project itself.
There is certainly no denying the Euro is a mess. The eye of the sovereign debt storm may now have passed but a currency union without banking and fiscal unions will, across such diverse economies, inevitably produce destabilising economic imbalances. The true is same here in Britain – monetary policy is categorically not run with the economic interests of, say, the people of Wolverhampton in mind. The difference is that over the centuries we have developed a fiscal policy that can, at least in part, help ameliorate this. It is called redistribution.
This is what Germany will not countenance and what, beneath the fiscal technicalities, Macron is proposing. It is bold, brave and frankly, the first sustainable Eurozone solution brought forward since the crisis began. But for Berlin and Brussels, unwilling to face down either the fiscal sensibilities of the German taxpayer or populists who would relish a campaign against ‘more Europe’, it represents a direct challenge to their authority.
To be clear: there is sound political logic for avoiding both those confrontations. But so far Macron does not appear to be a politician who backs down from confronting political logic. European politics looks set for an almighty fight between, on one hand, a group of politicians who will do anything to avoid defining choices and one who seems to revel in clarifying them on the other.
The result will have profound implications for Brexit. Because if Macron gets his way then the EU will be forced to open the dreaded Pandora’s box labelled ‘treaty negotiation’. A new vision for Europe would be on the table and it would seem possible, if not probable, that the EU could split into a Eurozone core and a decentralised periphery. Who knows, maybe the periphery countries might end up negotiating their own bespoke relationships? Which is to say, we may end up with a vision for Europe that, whisper it quietly, Britain may want to be part of after all.
Alan Lockey is head of the modern economy programme at Demos. He tweets at @Modern_Lockey
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