Thursday, July 18, 2024

Europe braced for a weakened Emmanuel Macron

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European governments are struggling to adjust to France’s new political reality, with a diminished presidency and a parliament more consumed by domestic concerns than the bold pro-EU initiatives Emmanuel Macron once excelled in.

Sunday’s snap vote plunged the Eurozone’s second-largest economy into political turmoil, with Macron facing a hung parliament and likely “cohabitation” with a prime minister from a rival party.

“He’s no longer in the boxing ring,” said Enrico Letta, former Italian prime minister.

The outcome of the election could have been worse for Macron. He will not have to share power with Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National, the Eurosceptic party which came third.

But unless he manages to build a German-style grand coalition, he still faces an unstable political landscape with shortlived governments which are unlikely to be beholden to him. This situation could severely restrict Macron’s ability to launch the kind of sweeping European initiatives that were long his trademark.

That could hinder progress in Brussels on issues ranging from “migration, agriculture, tech, the internal market, capital markets union, banking union and transport”, an EU diplomat said.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left, and Emmanuel Macron in Meseberg, north of Berlin, in May. The French president has ruffled feathers over his proposals for common borrowing and higher EU spending © Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

More than any other French postwar leader, Macron has both enthused and irked many in Europe with his bold interventions on the EU stage.

He twice used the imposing amphitheatre of the Sorbonne to outline his vision of a more assertive and “sovereign” Europe, and exploited his skill in navigating Brussels’ corridors of power to place political allies in top jobs. He also invested huge capital in seeking to reignite the often sputtering Franco-German engine at the heart of the European project.

Macron’s style has ruffled feathers, including in Berlin, where successive governments balked at his proposals for common borrowing and higher EU spending.

But the alternative — a weakened French president — is proving even less palatable, especially in Germany, homeland of the Macron-sceptics.

“Of course we worry about political instability,” said one German official. At issue, he added, is the risk of a confrontation between a high-spending government in Paris and the European Commission, which has already launched a procedure against France over breaching the EU’s fiscal rules on excessive deficits.

In its budget in October, the new government will have to find billions of euros in savings to comply with EU borrowing rules — a challenge for any party, but especially for those elected on a platform of reversing Macron’s pension reform and raising the minimum wage and public sector pay.

“We don’t even know if we’ll have a fully-functioning government in place by October,” the official said.

Shahin Vallée, former adviser to Macron and now senior fellow at the German council on foreign affairs, said that in autumn, France “is going to have the choice of its crisis: either domestic or European”.

Many in Germany also worry about elements of the left-wing alliance that triumphed in Sunday’s election, particularly La France Insoumise leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon who has a history of anti-German rhetoric.

Mélenchon “supports Vladimir Putin, incites against Israel, advocates for Hamas terrorists [and] hates Germany”, Bild Zeitung, the mass circulation daily, wrote on Tuesday. “France’s election-winner might not be right-wing, but he’s still an extremist demagogue.”

Experts in Berlin point to his 2016 book Bismarck’s Herring: The German Poison in which he railed against the free-market economic policies of former chancellor Angela Merkel.

Nils Schmid, foreign policy spokesman for Germany’s ruling Social Democrats, stressed that France’s lower house still had a pro-European majority backing Nato and military support for Ukraine in its war against Russia.

But the country now faced a “period of uncertainty” which could “limit the government’s capacity to act” and Macron’s “ability to launch new initiatives”, he cautioned.

“For the foreseeable future, France will struggle to really play an active role in international institutions,” said Johann Wadephul, defence spokesman for the opposition Christian Democrats. “The world will expect more leadership from [Chancellor] Olaf Scholz and there’s no way he’s going to meet those expectations.”

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 5 2024
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, left, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on July 5. France and Germany condemned the visit © Sputnik/Valeriy Sharifulin/Reuters

In France, experts downplay the importance of Mélenchon’s party, which is outnumbered by greens and socialists in the victorious leftwing alliance. But a leftist government could place limits on the amount of support Macron can offer Ukraine.

“He might have to hold back sending Mirage 2000 fighter jets,” said Michel Duclos, a veteran diplomat. “If the commission wants new funding sources, will a leftwing government say yes? It could cause some tensions.”

Any suggestion that the outcome of France’s election could damage the Franco-German relationship provokes deep concern in Berlin.

The tandem was instrumental in spearheading some of the great reforms in EU history — the creation of the euro, the Lisbon treaty extending EU powers far beyond economics and the €800bn of joint borrowing for the post-pandemic recovery.

The two countries have been at odds in recent years, partly because Scholz has had his hands full trying to keep together his unwieldy three-party coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and liberals.

But co-operation has picked up again recently on a number of fronts, with both countries agreeing on the need for the EU to move into defence and make progress towards capital markets union — a push to consolidate the bloc’s fragmented banking sector.

They also responded to the advance of far-right parties in June’s European parliament elections by uniting behind a senior leadership team for EU institutions — and condemned Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for travelling to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin last week.

Still, the power dynamics within the European Council, the bloc’s political body attended by heads of state, are likely to shift.

“One is only as strong as their political support,” said Laurence Boone, former EU minister under Macron. “When France and Germany suggest amendments or new legislation, others might be tempted to push back and say: let’s talk first.”

There was a risk of Europe embracing a more minimalist agenda, said former Italian prime minister Letta. His own plan for capital markets union, which he presented in April with Paris’s support, would be jeopardised, as well as talks over a eurobond to fund defence projects.

“If the French engine grinds to a halt, everything stops,” Letta said. “Nothing happens through inertia in Europe.”

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