PARIS - After failing to coax Washington to stick with the Iran nuclear deal, and facing protests at home over his labor and pension reforms, French President Emmanuel Macron may find solace Thursday in Germany, where he will be given a prestigious European award for another key ambition: far-reaching goals to reform and revamp the European Union.
The Charlemagne Prize, which he will receive in the German spa town of Aachen, remains more of an aspirational nod to Macron's European ambitions than his ability to actually unify the region. Named after the medieval emperor who ruled over a swath of western and central Europe, the prize is awarded to those contributing to European unity.
Angela Merkel won the prize a decade ago for her work in unifying the bloc. Ironically, the German chancellor is now counted as one of the roadblocks in Macron’s call for a post-Brexit European Union to forge closer economic, political and defense bonds.
“It’s easier for him to reform France because he’s in charge,” said Charles Grant, director of the London-based Center for European Reform think tank, or CER, who believes Macron will ultimately succeed in implementing some but not many of his proposed EU changes. “The problem with Europe is he’s not in charge.”
In Aachen, Macron is slated to deliver a major speech on the 28-member bloc — that dwindles to 27 with Britain’s slated 2019 departure — described as a continuation but not a replica of one he delivered at the Sorbonne University in Paris last September. There, the French president outlined a raft of priorities, from creating a European rapid response defense force and common asylum policy to deeper eurozone integration.
One immediate deadline is looming to add substance to the rhetoric. Macron and Merkel are to present a joint plan for reforming the 19-member eurozone by June. But there is another in the not-so-distant future. European parliamentary elections are slated for next year, and some fear euroskeptic parties will score strongly.
No longer a continent in crisis
Macron’s election a year ago, beating far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, has bucked a populist wave elsewhere in Europe, which saw Hungarian leader Victor Orban re-elected to a third consecutive term in April, and anti-establishment parties in Italy surging in March elections.
In Germany, France's co-partner in an EU that emerged from a ’50s-era coal and steel pact, a weakened Merkel and her coalition government are reluctant to push eurozone reforms too far.
Still, some analysts point to encouraging signs for a more unified Europe. One is public support for the European Union itself, with a 2017 Eurobarometer survey showing three-quarters of Europeans view the bloc positively.
And despite Britain’s planned 2019 exit, “Europe no longer appears to be a continent in crisis,” wrote researchers Kermal Dervis and Caroline Conroy in a Brookings Institution report last month. Even in debt-strapped Greece, “a majority of respondents now support the EU.”
At least some of Macron’s proposed reforms will be adopted in the long term, the Brookings report predicted, injecting “new dynamism” into the EU, making European citizens more enthusiastic about the bloc and increasing its ability to assert its economic and social values on a changing world stage.
More broadly, Macron’s leadership role in the EU is a sharp departure from recent tradition. Under Merkel, Germany has been Europe’s main motor over the past decade, and Washington’s go-to European interlocutor under former President Barack Obama. Today, it is France that is putting its stamp on international affairs in the Middle East and the Sahel, and President Donald Trump’s European calls are more likely placed to Paris, not Berlin.
So far, however, the French president has little to show for it. Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran agreement on Tuesday has left Europeans scrambling to salvage it, and Macron has yet to secure permanent European exemptions to U.S. metals tariffs.
Macron is also facing German resistance to many of his European reform proposals. On defense, France and Germany recently agreed to jointly develop new military weapons, including a next-generation fighter plane. But there is less appetite in other areas, notably the French leader’s call for closer eurozone financial integration, complete with a eurozone budget and finance minister.
If Macron is to push Berlin further, he must first prove himself at home, CER’s Grant believes. France’s own economy is only recently emerging from years of lackluster performance. But in March, the country finally met the EU’s 3 percent public deficit cap — posting a surprising 2.6 debt-to-public-deficit ratio — for the first time in more than a decade.
“If he does succeed in reforming the French economy — which I think he is doing — it will be much harder for the Germans to say no on eurozone reforms,” Grant said.
Still Macron faces considerable resistance at home.
Tens of thousands of French took to the streets last Saturday, marking Macron’s year anniversary in office with massive rallies against his proposals. Striking rail and airline employees are snarling commuting schedules and costing their employers billions of dollars in losses. The president's popularity has hit record lows. Yet the majority of French also support Macron’s rail reforms — and crucially his young La Republique en Marche party controls the French parliament, assuring his legislation safe passage.
A bigger roadblock to eurozone reforms lies outside France. Italy — Europe’s third-largest economy — faces a political deadlock and a shaky economy, making any substantial deepening of the financial union unlikely in the immediate future, Grant said.
More fundamentally, perhaps, the French president's vision of Europe is at odds with those of populist leaders and parties that are resonating in many parts of the continent. Macron has called for a more flexible bloc, which tacitly allows more pro-European countries to forge ahead and more skeptical ones to lag behind. Other EU member states have not signed on to the idea, but analysts such as Grant believe it will become a reality in fact, if not in rhetoric.
Others are cautiously optimistic the French leader may prevail in his European ambitions, but only with a massive effort in rallying European public opinion to his side — mirroring, in some ways, his surprising victory in last year's elections.
“Macron will need a ‘Europe en March’ … a project for the democratic unification of Europe,” international affairs experts Brendan Simms and Daniel Schade wrote in The New Republic. “… The French cannot be armed missionaries — that never worked — but they must be the animating spirit of the union.”