THE WASHINGTON POST – The coronavirus crisis is challenging the European Union (EU) to the core. Reports of belated cooperation to counter the pandemic and regional divisions in tackling the economic fallout have dominated the narrative.
The announcement Monday of a Franco-German agreement on a proposed 500 billion-euro recovery fund was rightly hailed as a “historic step” toward a stronger European response.
But the deeper vulnerabilities underscored in these past months will remain.
After a decade of crises, the EU seems like it will emerge from this moment more vulnerable, and the risk of a new upsurge in euroskepticism, especially in hard-hit countries like Italy, is high.
Some new books will be rendered instantly obsolete by the pandemic, others only more relevant to understanding the world to come.
William Drozdiak’s The Last President of Europe: Emmanuel Macron’s Race to Revive France and Save the World belongs in the latter category. Drozdiak outlines the urgency of the French president’s vision for a united and sovereign Europe and the high obstacles it faces.
The pandemic places greater importance on both the vision and the hurdles.
Drozdiak chronicles the first three years of Macron’s activities on the domestic and international fronts. His portrait is aided by interviews with the main protagonists, including Macron himself. The French president seeks the twin objectives of modernising France’s economy and enhancing the European project.
“He ran for the presidency convinced that he could restore his nation’s grandeur only as part of a larger crusade to fortify Europe as a global power that could compete on the same level as the United States (US), China, and Russia,” Drozdiak writes.
But Macron is no naive Euro enthusiast, animated by the postmodern lure of open borders and post-national identities. His presidency is increasingly hawkish on immigration. His rhetoric is haunted by a quasi-apocalyptic fear that “Europe could disappear,” as he tells the author, in a world defined by an intensifying power competition between the US and China.
The Europe that Macron promotes is one based on realism and sovereignty: asserting power on the world stage, defending its interests, investing in strong borders and defense. Instead of merely opposing populists by emphasizing openness and tolerance, Macron seeks to capture the demand for protection and reshape it.
“Sovereignty and protection from the shocks of the modern world could be achieved only by European countries working together, not as divided and isolated nation-states.”
Macron has outlined this vision in speeches and letters, most notably his 2017 Sorbonne speech on European sovereignty. In the address, Macron proposed a more integrated and robust euro zone, which would have better prepared Europe to withstand the pandemic shock.
Since then, the French president has advocated for a global response to the coronavirus, having convened the Group of Seven early on, and stepped up calls for European solidarity in the face of the health and economic crisis. Aligned with southern Europe, Paris has pushed for the adoption of “coronabonds,” euro-backed assets that would allow for common borrowing. In speech after speech, Macron has said that the pandemic reveals a new world and should open debates about European sovereignty in the medical supply chain, food security, digital privacy and military strategy.
But long-standing challenges persist. Macron’s European partners – first and foremost Germany’s prudent chancellor, Angela Merkel – are reluctant to embrace Paris’s ambitions: “Macron was hoping that Merkel shared his sense of urgency about the need to get Europe moving again. . . . [He] also wanted to persuade Germany to reconsider its dogmatic views about austerity and balanced budgets and consider more innovative ways to spur growth across Europe.” Merkel’s agreement to the recovery fund spurred new momentum in the Franco-German partnership and hope for increased boldness in her last term. But it should not prevent Paris strategists from investing in new partnerships in the EU, especially with Spain or Italy, which have emerged as strong voices for European cooperation in this crisis.
While it is a foreign policy book, The Last President of Europe also outlines Macron’s domestic reforms: bringing much-needed flexibility to the famously rigid labour market, overhauling pensions, promoting entrepreneurship and modernising the education system. But decades of political paralysis left strong inequalities and resistance to change among large chunks of the French electorate, embodied by the violent Yellow Jackets movement, “a troubling malaise in French society that had been festering for years,” Drozdiak writes. The underperforming French economy had burdened Macron’s predecessors on the international stage.
The task is greater today. At home, national leaders will have to answer for the economic costs of the measures to contain the pandemic, and France will suffer after seeing the first positive effects of reforms on unemployment numbers last year.
On the international stage, leaders will have to reconcile the demand for greater protection and sovereignty with the urgent need to strengthen global cooperation and revamp multilateralism. Macron’s France will be ready to offer solutions, but it will need partners abroad and support at home.
Macron’s vision of Europe makes some Americans uncomfortable. Would this “sovereign” and “autonomous” Europe hedge between the United States and its competitors? Would it seek to drive the United States out of Europe? It’s time to forgo such fears and support a more ambitious European agenda. Concerns about burden-sharing will only increase in the post-pandemic world.