Noah BarkinSpecial correspondent for Europe at Reuters
No, Macron is not isolated in Europe.
But he is paying the price for laying out a vision that was too audacious for many other EU member states, above all Germany, whose political class has been consumed with itself for over a year and looks incapable and/or unwilling to jump on Macron’s European reform TGV.
Macron has also been dragged down by his domestic woes. It is hard for any leader to get things done in Europe when they are on the defensive at home. Only one in four French are satisfied with Macron’s work. He has alienated people with his brash—some would say arrogant—personal style. And after a nightmarish summer marked by the Benalla bodyguard scandal and government resignations, he is now wrestling with fuel tax protests.
But there are rays of light. Germany has swung behind France’s idea for an EU digital tax. Berlin has tentatively backed Macron’s call for a European army. And other EU states welcomed a Franco-German proposal this week for a modest eurozone budget.
None of this will measure up to the bold vision Macron spelled out in his Sorbonne speech back in September 2017. But great leaps forward are an illusion in a Europe of 28 members. Macron is moving the dial. Without him we might have total inertia. EU elections next May and the outcome of a power struggle within Angela Merkel’s conservative party will determine whether Macron can deliver more than just incremental change.
Anne-Sylvaine ChassanyWorld news editor at the Financial Times
Emmanuel Macron has failed to embark Europe and his own population on his integrationist journey. It was always a tall order, and his isolation was always a risk. His victory over far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the presidential runoff in May 2017 was wrongly interpreted as a sign that the French would embrace his European vision. They have remained defiant toward the technocratic elite in Brussels.
The French leader’s unpopularity at home—stemming from a lack of tangible economic results, a hyper-centralized way of governing, and a presidential style verging on arrogance—is threatening his international standing and the meagre concessions he has extracted from Angela Merkel. The German chancellor’s nod on issues long seen as contentious in Berlin, such as a “small” budget for the eurozone and a European “army,” have fallen short of Macron’s bold plan outlined in his landmark Sorbonne speech in September 2017.
Now, with euroskeptic, anti-immigration forces likely to make big gains in EU parliamentary elections next year, Europe is stalling amid the threat of political fragmentation and nationalist fever.
François HeisbourgSpecial Adviser at Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique
Yes, Macron is isolated in Europe. Part of this situation is deliberate: he wants to make the fight between progressives and populists, especially those in power in Poland and Hungary, a wedge issue for the May 2019 European elections. But the most crucial component of Macron’s isolation is the product of German inertia under two successive grand coalitions, notably on what counts the most from the French standpoint:
- agreement on a two-speed Europe, akin to the Kerneuropa project of the CDU in the 1990s, allowing for a high degree of integration; and
- creating a meaningful eurozone, without which Italy is liable to crash out of the euro and the union after twenty years of virtuous primary surpluses and vicious shrinking of the GDP.
With Merkel and the SPD moving toward the exit, Macron may be in a position of having a meaningful dialogue with Jamaica Germany. If nothing moves by the time of the 2019 Euro-elections, Macron's likely electoral setback will be presented domestically as the strategic failure of a president elected to change Europe, even as his reforms are striking root in France. The ball is in Germany’s court.
Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe
No. Macron is the only leader coming up with interesting and important ideas about reenergizing the EU. The notion that his arrival in the Elysée would relaunch Europe was always silly. But he has been the first serious pro-EU reformist in charge of France in decades. Of course there is resistance, but quoi de neuf?
On Europe, Macron is putting forward ideas to oblige the convergence of eurozone economies and a eurozone budget. Other ministers are accepting this—even if they’re keeping fingers crossed behind their backs. But they acknowledge that Macron is a man with a plan, unlike most other EU government heads who have no alternative.
Macron has won Merkel’s backing for increased European defense coordination in procurement and spending. This has been misreported by the anti-EU press in London as a call for an EU army or even anti-American. In fact, Macron echoes U.S. President Trump’s demands for more defense outlay from EU nations.
Nationalist, populist, and xenophobic EU politics backed by Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and Brexiters in the UK now have an open, declared foe standing up for European values and the sovereignty of the EU. Macron is far from uniting Europe, but he stands and speaks for much that supporters of the EU find invigorating and worthwhile.
Sophie PedderParis Bureau Chief at The Economist
When the French president gave his speech at the Sorbonne in September 2017, he had hoped to lean on friendly and cooperative governments from Germany to Italy to push through many ambitious ideas: reforming the eurozone, integrating defense capacities, establishing a form of European sovereignty to take on the tech giants, and reviving confidence in the European project.
Today he cuts a more isolated figure. He lacks strong partners among old allies. Angela Merkel is weakened. Euroskeptic nationalists have entered government in Italy. Resistance in northern Europe to his eurozone plans have hardened. Macron’s quest to cast himself as the defender of the liberal order against the forces of nationalism is perceived as provocative and divisive in Rome, Budapest, and Warsaw.
Yet, unusually for a French president, Macron has also been building ties to countries his predecessors neglected. In eighteen months he has visited nineteen European Union nations. His state visit to Denmark was the first by a French president for thirty-six years, a trip to Finland the first official visit for nineteen years. Leadership change in Germany could even present fresh opportunities. Macron may be more isolated, but he has not given up his search for partners—and certainly not his hopes of building a stronger Europe with them.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
President Macron’s vision of reinforcing Europe’s integration in several fields is historically right: the lessons of both World Wars may soon be forgotten with the passing of generations and the inward-looking proclivity of many citizens and political parties. But he is facing both hostility and a style and method issue.
While Brexit should in principle reinforce the drive toward more European integration, hard-headed populists such as Hungary’s Orbán or Italy’s Salvini actually work against existing EU policies, let alone resist more integration. Ideologically, German Chancellor Angela Merkel shares Macron’s vision of a stronger Europe in an increasingly hostile world, but she is no longer in absolute command of Germany’s strategic choices.
Macron’s strategic loneliness is reinforced by his Gaullian approach to European affairs: France is usually inclined to be pro-European, as long as other EU countries follow her lead. Except that Macron is no De Gaulle, and the world has changed many times over during the last sixty years.
The method issue lies with the fact that France and Germany have translated the Lisbon Treaty into a return of policymaking to Paris and Berlin and the appointment of politically marginal leaders to the EU institutions. This creates distrust in other capitals, especially on foreign policy.
In short, Macron’s vision is right, but his style and method are not conducive to forging a strong EU core. The May 2019 European Parliament elections and the appointment of new EU leaders will be a key test.
Jana PuglierinHead of Program, Alfred Von Oppenheim Center For European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations
An audible sigh of relief was released from Berlin when Emmanuel Macron triumphed in France’s presidential elections in 2017. Yet eighteen months later, the famous Franco-German engine is still stalled: Berlin has not bought into most of Macron’s radical reform ideas. If it did, like in the case of a eurozone budget, it has transformed a tiger into a bedside rug. However, given the strained relationship with Italy and the Visegrád Four and the skepticism that Macron receives from the “Hanseatic league,” Merkel is one of Macron’s view remaining friends in Europe.
Macron’s increasing isolation in Europe and his declining support at home should worry Berlin greatly for two reasons. First, if the French start to see Macron’s presidency as a failure, France’s radical left or right-wing euroskeptics are likely to take over the country in 2022. Second, Germany needs France to stop the faltering of the European project. If the leaders of these two countries don’t get their acts together and come up with a common agenda for true EU reform— implemented under the new EU Commission from summer 2019—then who will? Berlin officials should therefore think hard about what they could give Macron to strengthen his position in the EU and vis-à-vis France’s euroskeptics. So far, they haven’t been very creative.
Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
Right from the start, President Macron’s style and strategy were doomed to stir isolation. By promoting a highly ambitious agenda in his Sorbonne speech and seemingly ignoring the work launched by the other EU leaders, the French president cast himself as a lonely figure. He enticed genuine sympathy but scarce following. This impression was enhanced by Angela Merkel’s domestic turmoil, which left the French-German tandem destabilized and Macron largely on his own.
Additionally, the strategy underlying Macron’s vision for Europe was bent on reshuffling the whole political parties system in Europe with the kind of political breakthrough successfully achieved in France. But Macron’s plan for the emergence of a brand new, pro-European, centrist formation could not fire up Liberal and Christian Democrat leaders. They saw Macron’s design as a threat to their own political positioning, thus further isolating the French president.
With the European Parliament elections ahead, a more sober assessment seems to prevail today between Macron and the EU leaders who share his overall views about Europe. New political alliances are in the making and cautious reforms are patiently progressing in Berlin and Paris. This more realistic course may well be a good omen for ending the isolation seen so far.