5 March 2019

Emmanuel Macron’s troubling vision of an EU ‘renaissance’


“Dear Europe…”

So began Emmanuel Macron’s latest attempt to reform the European Union. Having been delayed and distracted by a combination of domestic political turmoil and hesitancy on the part of his German counterpart, Angela Merkel, the French president returned today with an editorial calling for a European “renaissance” after Brexit. In the article, which appears in a newspaper in every member state, Macron suggests his vision for the EU is so utterly compelling that the UK will be kicking itself for leaving.

For all his usual bombast, Macron’s op-ed shows little that is actually new. Europe, by which he always means the EU, “is a historic success”, so, of course, we need more of it.

In Macron’s eyes, evidence of that historic success is all around us: on the macroeconomic scale, where the euro saved Europe from the crises of financial capitalism, as well as the local scale, where the gigantically large cohesion funds led to “the school refurbished, the road built, and the long-awaited arrival of high-speed internet access”. And almost needless to say (but not too needless), the EU has brought the continent the kind of continual peace we could have never imagined before its inception.

His appetite for success is not sated, however. It is time to go even further. “I propose we build this renewal together around three ambitions: freedom, protection and progress.” Indeed, freedom should be at the forefront of the future of Europe. After all, “the European model is based on freedom”. However, what Macron actually means by freedom is what sounds like an oxymoron – “freedom in security.”

What it amounts to is a spate of new EU agencies, a greater role for Brussels in defence policy, and a dose of protectionism, or in Macron’s phrase “fair competition”, to be ensured by “penalising or banning businesses that compromise our strategic interests and fundamental values such as environmental standards, data protection and fair payment of taxes”.

It’s not just businesses who fail to follow the Brussels line who face being banned. Macron, ever the free speech warrior, also wants to clamp down on “hatred and violence from the internet, since respect for the individual is the bedrock of our civilisation and our dignity”. Digital giants, presumably mostly from the US, should be put in their place. The EU should “finance innovation by giving the new European Innovation Council a budget on a par with the United States”. Presumably that money will be sent to government agencies and research labs owned by member states after any major private enterprises have been killed off.

Finally, European workers should be better protected. A “social shield for all workers” needs to be introduced, which would guarantee the same pay for the same work, with a new European minimum wage. The latter, which has also been floated by Jeremy Corbyn, would undoubtedly have disastrous consequences for the simple reason that extreme income differences exist inside the EU. How high would the minimum wage have to be if Germany and Romania, for instance, were to have the same? A low one based on Romania’s standard of living would be completely useless in Germany, a high one based on Germany’s would lead to mass unemployment in Romania.

For all his grandiloquence, Macron’s big response to Brexit is simply more of the same, more centralisation, more Europe. That’s not especially surprising, given his federalising instincts. What is worrying, however, is that for the French president it is the only choice, the only path to a better future.

For all the extreme demands he has made over the last two years, Macron previously differed from other federalists at least in the sense that he realised that people disagreed with him and that coercing people into a single mega-state was not a good idea. His concept of an EU of “concentric circles” was a good example of his accommodation with more eurosceptic forces.

But this latest salvo of proposals shows that his “concentric circles” idea is not meant as a system in which each member state can decide for itself how much it wants to integrate – even if it means staying on the same level or retreat a little. Instead, everyone would still need to move to the same direction. “Is it better to have a static Europe or a Europe that advances, sometimes at different speeds?” he asks rhetorically. Yes, moving at different speeds is fine for Macron. But the destination must be the same for all parties.

In Macron’s view of things, any attempt to diverge from the idea of ‘ever closer union’ is tantamount to falling into what he calls the “European trap” of “retreating into nationalism” – naturally, he suggests Brexit is the epitome of this trap.

Sure, according to Macron every government has to decide for itself what it wants – but in reality, there is only one choice. Trying to rebel against the increasing integration of Europe would be the choice of decline. Supporting yet more integration is being on the “right side of history”. The EU is the one and only correct choice in the end.

It is almost comical to hear Macron assert that all of this bureaucratisation is a response to European citizens’ desire to “take back control”. How this can be done by further working on the creation of an uber-centralised federal superstate is not quite clear.

Nevertheless, Macron may be onto something. The answer may indeed lie in taking back control. He is right to say the EU has in many respects been “an unprecedented project of peace, prosperity and freedom”. But as time has gone on, so the EU has departed from being a project for peace and economic cooperation – the kind of bloc envisaged by Margaret Thatcher – into something altogether different.

If the EU wants to survive and prosper, it urgently needs to decentralise and let citizens again make decisions on the national and local level – embracing what eurocrats like to call the ‘principle of subsidiarity’.

Meanwhile, federalists like Macron would do well to stop their progressivist notion of the European Union. A European federal state is not something to aspire to. And, contrary to what they seem to think, the vast majority of Europeans do not share their feverish, quasi-religious zeal for the European project.

Europe has a choice. And if Emmanuel Macron actually wants to build the future of Europe on the ideas of freedom, he needs to realise this. How free will the EU be, after all, if the freedom to criticise, question, and, as a last resort, exit is not a part of it?

Kai Weiss is a Research and Outreach Officer at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member at the Hayek Institute