Macron brings zest — and risk — to EU summit


It’s all about Emmanuel.

As EU leaders meet in Brussels on Thursday to chart the course of the next 18 months, they are feeling bolder and more confident, eager to tackle new policy problems and wade into more divisive, riskier debates. And in doing so, they have a new pace-setter: Emmanuel Macron.

The French president’s ideas form the core of a new leaders’ agenda for 2018-2019 to be put forward by European Council President Donald Tusk at the summit on Friday: boosting military cooperation, tightening the EU’s monetary union, imposing more rigid screening of foreign investments and tougher anti-dumping duties, overhauling rules on workers posted outside their home country, and creating a new system of political conventions and transnational lists in European elections.

Macron is described in many ways by EU officials as the bloc’s adored new puppy, at once a cause for cooing and for trepidation — especially because the puppy now appears to be setting the agenda.

“The key challenge is how to use the energy of Macron,” said a senior EU official. “It is good news for Europe to have a president of France who is pro-European … It’s also important that the pro-European leader of France is ready to make sacrifices, is ready to engage into compromises.”

The French president’s ideas form the core of a new leaders’ agenda for 2018-2019 | Pool photo by Philippe Wojazer/EPA

Lionized for vanquishing Marine Le Pen — who was viewed in Brussels and other European capitals as the Continent’s most sinister populist threat — and admired for his upending of traditional French political parties with a pro-EU message, Macron, at the age of 39, is The Man.

The challenge, officials said, is to ensure that the high-flying ambitions of the upstart French president do not end up fracturing the unity that EU leaders have cultivated since Brexit.

“There were fears in many corners in Europe, and not only in the East, that if the energy of President Macron is not channeled into the EU framework, then we might risk divisions in the EU,” the senior EU official said.

“It’s not Macron’s summit, it’s Tusk’s summit” — Senior EU diplomat

At a lunch at the Elysée Palace on October 11, Tusk sought and received assurances from Macron that the French president would pursue unity on every issue, before falling back on the so-called “multispeed Europe” strategy, in which countries might pursue greater cooperation in smaller groups.

Not everyone is convinced Macron’s ideas are all that grand, nor is everyone reassured that he will put unity first. “The issues he has presented, from social justice to defense, are not new,” an EU diplomat from Central Europe said. “What is new is the rhetoric. It’s not unity that he puts first, whereas we are on this ship all together.”

Other officials said that the enthusiasm for Macron is rooted less in his big ideas for Europe than in his acknowledgement that France needs significant reforms at home, including structural changes to its economy, and Macron’s professed willingness to undertake them. That willingness has come at a price: a decline in approval ratings, and fights with trade unions, among other interest groups.

Tusk sought and received assurances from Macron that the French president would pursue unity on every issue | Valda Kalnina/EPA

While Macron agreed to do his utmost to avoid divisions, the senior EU official said other leaders understood that the French president was eager to push forward. “The desire of Macron is clear: His point is that the unity of 27 cannot be an excuse for stagnation,” the official said.

Tusk himself repeated that sentiment twice in the last two days, first in an invitation letter to the summit sent on Tuesday night and then at a news conference on Wednesday evening, where he said “unity cannot be a synonym for stagnation” while also noting that “ambition should not be an excuse for division.”

One Western European diplomat said that Tusk had struck the right balance in his invitation letter to leaders, which stressed a new approach focused on delivering results. “It’s what we want the EU to be,” the diplomat said.

Overflowing with ideas

Macron is hardly the only European leader with big ideas. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker put forward a similarly ambitious vision in his State of the Union speech to the European Parliament in September. Other leaders have also made big speeches on Europe’s future, like Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa’s address to the College of Europe in Bruges, or have put forward preferred policy ideas, like the effort by Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Rattas to rally support for a sweeping package of digital initiatives.

At a dinner meeting of EU leaders in Tallinn last month, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte made a forceful case for limiting the number of new initiatives and instead focusing on implementing the policy proposals already adopted at summits in Bratislava in September 2016 and in Rome in March.

Some officials sought to play down the role and influence of Macron, saying the French president was getting inordinate attention because of his recent election, and that other leaders did not feel a need to be in the spotlight because they had already helped shape the decisions in Bratislava in Rome. Several noted that Macron charged into his first EU summit last spring, aggressively pushing a proposal on investment screening only to be rebuffed.

Macron dines next to Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite ahead of the EU Digital Summit in Tallinn, Estonia | Virginia Mayo/AFP via Getty Images

In some ways, the focus of this week’s summit on Macron’s ideas reflects an effort by Tusk to wrest control of the EU agenda from Juncker, who has proposed combining the Commission and Council presidencies into a single position. Hints of a power struggle between the two institutions began to emerge at the Tallinn meeting last month.

Commission officials noted with some disdain that a document laying out the timeline for the Council leaders’ agenda published by Tusk on Wednesday looked remarkably similar to a “Roadmap” for the EU’s future put forward by the Commission last month in conjunction with Juncker’s speech.

The propelling of Macron and his agenda to the center of the EU’s stage reflects a hungering among leaders, especially in the wake of Brexit, for a new champion of their cause. Juncker conveyed much of the same message, and many similar ideas, but he’s a member of Europe’s old guard, viewed as unlikely to excite young voters and re-energize the Continent.

Just how much the French president matters is likely to be determined in the next months, as his agenda is put to an early and extraordinary series of tests.

“It’s not Macron’s summit, it’s Tusk’s summit,” a senior EU diplomat said Wednesday, noting that leaders had tasked Tusk with preserving unity of the 27 in the face of Brexit and other challenges. “Now the European Council is on top of things, and we welcome this move,” another senior diplomat said.

A senior EU official said that political heft would always be centered in the national capitals, not the European Quarter of Brussels. “The presidents of the institutions in Brussels,” an official said, “I mean, however [much] you love them and so on, they don’t have as much weight as the leader of France. The president of France is someone who really matters in Europe.”

Just how much the French president matters is likely to be determined in the next months, as his agenda is put to an early and extraordinary series of tests.

Macron’s own aides said they expect to face tough resistance on some proposals, particularly the idea of a strongly empowered eurozone finance minister. Such a position would seem to fit into a category of “institutional reforms” that Tusk largely ruled out in his summit invitation letter.

Momentum seems to be on Macron’s side | Pool photo by Philippe Wojazer/EPA

On several other issues Paris is optimistic and momentum seems to be on Macron’s side.

In addition to EU leaders taking up a number of the main proposals that Macron laid out in his big speech on Europe at the Sorbonne last month, the Council is also expected to hold discussions at Macron’s behest on a new system for taxing digital behemoths like Google and Apple, and on his concerns over a proposed trade deal with the bloc of South American nations known as Mercosur.

“All of this comes in the context of a more protective Europe,” said an aide to Macron, parroting the president’s campaign pledge.

Maïa de La Baume and Quentin Ariès contributed reporting.  

Source: Politico

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