A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Waiting for Berlin


Right after the German election, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech on the future of Europe. With a new German government still in the making, is EU reform losing momentum again?

© REUTERS/Ludovic Marin/Pool

It might be one of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s greatest challenges yet. After nearly two months of wrangling, her conservatives still have not yet managed to form a coalition government with the Greens and Free Democrats. It is a tricky marriage indeed: the three parties remain miles apart on fundamental issues like climate policy, immigration, and eurozone reforms.

Yet Berlin can hardly afford to waste any more time. Governments across Europe are looking to Germany to take charge on a host of pressing internal and foreign policy issues, but also to lead the push to reshape the EU itself. One man in particular is watching closely to see what emerges from Berlin’s contentious coalition talks. Just two days after the German elections, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a sweeping speech at the Sorbonne where he fundamentally raised the stakes in the EU reform debate.

In an almost one-hundred-minute long speech, Macron laid out a comprehensive and ambitious vision for a new Europe, underlined by a strong emphasis on institutional innovation. In the field of security and defense for example, Macron pitched for a common intervention force, which – at least in principle – is a more ambitious version of the already existing but never used EU battle groups. On domestic security, he called for boosting the responsibilities of the newly established European Public Prosecutor’s Office and for establishing a European Intelligence Academy that would foster closer cooperation among member states’ intelligence services. On migration and asylum, he repeated the Commission’s proposal to create a European Asylum Office and suggested the gradual establishment of a European border police force.

No Revolution

The timing and vast scope of Macron’s speech garnered much attention: His drive and ambition come at a time when the EU seems to be looking more optimistically to the future. But his proposals are far from revolutionary; in fact, most of them have been on the table for a long time. However, Macron’s European drive and ambition have given those ideas new visibility – rearranged, bundled, and well-timed at a moment when the EU seems to be looking more optimistically into the future.

Despite being concrete and assertive about most of his proposals, Macron was careful not to draw red lines for the French position to avoid overpromising with his reform agenda or overburdening his European partners with too much too soon. Indeed, he depicted his vision for change as a plan that needs further debate, leaving enough room for maneuver in future negotiations.

On the most contentious issue – the strengthening of the eurozone – Macron climbed down from his initial, ambitious plan. Keenly aware that the coalition-building process in Germany could be complex and protracted, Macron constrained himself to attributing only a small part of his speech to eurozone governance. He repeated the need for a sizeable common eurozone budget but avoided any concrete figures, and suggested a particularly generous timetable for implementation that would allow eurozone members critical of his proposals ample time to work through their disagreements.

This strategy could help avoid conflict with a future German government. Macron recognizes the importance of Paris and Berlin jointly leading the EU reform agenda, and Berlin’s endorsement of his overall approach to reforming the European project in the long run is more significant to him than his eurozone reform plans in the short term. Indeed, Macron consulted Chancellor Merkel twice in the process of drafting his speech.

Discouraging Signals

But will it help? The French president has already been forced to postpone his initial plan. Now, as German coalition talks have ground to a halt, Macron is condemned to wait for a German response, and the signals he has received along the way have not been particularly encouraging. While Chancellor Merkel welcomed Macron’s proposals as a “good impetus” and the Greens’ leader Cem Özdemir urged taking “Macron’s outstretched hand,” the liberal FDP and the more conservative wing of Merkel’s CDU/CSU have been lukewarm at best. There is strong resistance to any kind of common eurozone budget, a banking union, or the establishment of a European Monetary Fund. That does not leave much scope for changing the status quo on eurozone politics.

Still, there is overlap on defense and security, corporate tax alignment, and a common asylum policy. An agreement in these fields could be packaged together with more contentious issues to at least push things forward. This, however, would presuppose the formation of a stable government and a coalition agreement vague enough to leave space for negotiations between Paris and Berlin – a lengthy and tedious process in itself.

Even if a German response comes soon and Paris and Berlin are able to get their rusty tandem back on the road by developing a series of reform measures, discontent may grow among other member states and hamper urgently needed consensus on reform. Thus, openness to other European heavyweights eager to shape the EU reform agenda, particularly Italy and Spain, will be key.

Advancing or Preserving?

The largest stumbling block will be the idea of deeper integration, or moving toward a more political union in general. Macron champions the concept of differentiated integration, a “multispeed EU” in which a small group of member states moves ahead on issues where closer cooperation triggers a strong backlash. But Warsaw, Budapest, and Prague, in particular, are not interested in cementing their positions outside the inner circle of EU decision-making – especially as the position on the margins has been weakened considerably with the British vote to leave the EU. At the same time, the appetite to deepen EU integration among member states like the Netherlands or Austria might also be waning after recent election results.

Against this backdrop, and with Brexit negotiations sputtering, it is no wonder that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s overriding concern is preserving the unity of the EU’s remaining 27 member states. Chancellor Merkel, too, has made it a priority to prevent the rift between core and periphery from deepening further. That only leaves room for functional and pragmatic forms of differentiated integration, like the flexible cooperation we have seen in security and defense.

President Macron has tried to push the EU reform debate squarely into the spotlight and spur his European partners to act; by making EU reform the central project of his presidency, he is taking a significant political risk at home. His proposals are concrete and serious, yet the response across the bloc has been largely skeptical. It is not surprising to see criticism from Central European countries, but Macron may well have been hoping for a warmer reception in Berlin.

Yet Germany, mired in intricate coalition negotiations, might be too paralyzed to act at a time when a rare window of opportunity to reform the European project seems to have opened. Nevertheless, in Macron’s rich menu of proposals it is at least likely that EU partners will find some aspects to pick up, even if the drive to reform is off to a slow start.