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French renaissance or European nightmare? Why Macron has the EU on edge ǀ View

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You have to hand it to the French. They’ve got style, sophistication, confidence and in the Élysée Palace, they now have a President whose raison d’être is the resurrection of the European dream. Isn’t this exactly what Europe needs? The contrast President Macron seeks to draw is a stark one. In Brussels, the EU establishment frets over Brexit, US tariffs and the relentless rise of populism. But on the banks of the Seine, a young and dynamic leader sets out policy priorities for the good of all Europeans, not just short term policies designed to win the next national election.

And yet, the muted reaction to President Macron’s latest renaissance in other member states tells a different story. Behind the soaring rhetoric – “rediscovering the spirit of progress” and beyond the obviously unachievable, like a European minimum wage – there has emerged an awakening. Albeit, not the awakening that Macron had in mind when sculpting his latest masterpiece. Because for many member states, Macron’s mask has slipped. It’s not a new golden age for Europe he’s proposing, but simply the latest iteration of French-led centralisation and protectionism. This is classic French policy garnished with an overpriced European dressing.

Macron’s vision isn’t about competition, trade or protecting Europe from predatory business practices. It’s about imposing French and German will upon every other EU member state.
Dr Eoin Drea
Senior Research Officer, Martens Centre

Take the example of the European Single Market in goods, services, capital and labour. This is the bedrock of the economic strength of the entire EU. Without the Single Market - even the incomplete version that exists today - there would be very little for Macron to wax lyrical about. Yet, as if blissfully unaware of the intricate and torturous path of EU competition and trade policy, Macron now seeks to undo decades of these hard-fought achievements.

Suddenly, the imperative is to target companies that “harm our strategic interests” and to favour European companies in “strategic industries.” Apparently, China, the US and India are the enemies at the gate and just as in that terrible Jean-Jacques Annaud film of the same name, the result will be a battlefield littered with the broken remnants of the captains of European industry.

Of course, the reality is much more prosaic, much more cynical. For “strategic industries” read the engineering giants Alstrom (French) and Siemens (German). By blocking their proposed merger, the European Commission has awoken the Franco-German beast. This is one of the few issues where French and German interests align and therein lies the real danger for the rest of Europe.

Germany may have successfully killed off Macron’s dream of a more centralized, integrated Eurozone but on trade and competition policy, Paris and Berlin now show signs of seeking a common goal. Perhaps, seeking to rectify the last decade of visionless policy on Europe, Germany – one of the most successful trading nations in the world – now supports protectionism as a tool to support its industrial base. Macron must be delighted, for Germany is now Emmanuel 2.0; cheaper, more conservative, less visionary - but ultimately just as dangerous for the future of the EU.

Macron’s vision isn’t about competition, trade or protecting Europe from predatory business practices. It’s about imposing French and German will upon every other EU member state. If decades of EU trade and competition policy need to be sacrificed, then so be it. This is pure power politics without the illusions of consensus building or compromise. Yet, to fully understand this approach is to understand that this strategy is based not on strength, but on underlying economic weakness.

It is borne of a fear of being unable to maintain economic power in a changing global trading environment. The global economy is slowing and both the French and German economies are deeply exposed. Even in Germany, the still favourable headline employment statistics camouflage the multitude of risks that lie beneath.

The ironies (and there are many) of President Macron’s soaring call to protectionism are not lost upon other EU member states more open to the vicissitudes of global trade. Wasn’t Macron elected on a platform of liberalizing and modernizing the French economy? Of opening up protected sectors and dragging France into the 21st century?

I guess it shows what a couple of months of street protest and wanton violence can do to a liberal revolution. It is interesting, too, that French support for the European Commission’s competition policy in targeting taxation agreements between some member states (Ireland and the Netherlands, for example) and US multinationals has evaporated when French interests are in play.

This is no French renaissance; just the same old French nightmares for smaller and more economically liberal member states. It’s almost enough to make me wish that the British would stay. Almost.

Dr Eoin Drea is a Senior Research Officer at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies

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