Why Macron falters?

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“Our system is based on freedom in which we have become used to living, sometimes when we need to defend it, it can entail making sacrifices. Faced with this, we have duties, the first of which is to speak frankly and very clearly without doom-mongering,” said French President Emmanuel Macron in a rather blunt and candid tone at the first session of the Cabinet Meeting after the country’s traditional August holiday break.

Drought and Ukraine invasion

Macron is referring to the looming food and energy crises that have suddenly enveloped Europe – as well as the globe – due to the concurrent convergence of the drought and the Ukraine invasion at this time.  Re-elected in April, Macron, undoubtedly the most pro-EU French president ever, is trying to take the advantage of a relatively pro-European federation state coalition government in Germany, after 16 years of Merkelism, to move forward his much-adored campaign for deep European integration with renewed enthusiasm.

Macron is quite right in his approach with regard to its timing because the opportunity for a major leapfrog in European integration probably appears to be more conducive today than it has been ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The geopolitical circumstances, particularly the Russian invasion of Ukraine which compelled NATO to take Finland and Sweden under its umbrella, are apparently quite favourable for profound changes. This timing perfectly suits Macron’s ambitions to engrave himself in the European political community.

Interestingly, despite such favourable alignment of positive factors, Europe appears to be in limbo in terms of its future direction – the span and pace of its integration. One obvious factor is the scars left by the departure of the United Kingdom.  The EU is still struggling to redefine its new relationship with London after its decision to cut its strings with Brussels. At the same times, it is still unclear whether the audacious and generous monetary intervention during the Covid-19 crisis was the first step towards the emergence of Europe’s own brand of fiscal federalism or whether it was just a flash in the pan. Macron’s pro-European pitch was the hallmark of his first term and he used it consistently throughout that period, though with little success.

Macron had a very ambitious European agenda, but most of his efforts during his first term ended in smoke and he could not translate his rhetoric into any tangible results. The Covid-19 crisis exposed two pricking realities: One, Europe’s inordinate economic dependency on the international network, and two, the urgent need for European solidarity and cohesion. The Ukraine invasion, for obvious reasons, has further augmented this ‘desire for unity’ not experienced since the Euro crisis and has catapulted the Europeans to the reality of their despondency. The Macron methodology, quite energetic in its essence, has certainly cajoled his other colleagues in the EU to shed their denial and complacency, but he has failed to convert that into some kind of robust coalition front.

Setback to European theme

The chasm between his rhetoric and execution was blatantly exposed during the June EU meeting where Macron had to face one of the hardest setbacks to his European theme since the bungled Msesberg Declaration exactly two years ago. His call for deeper EU integration received a very lukewarm response and his newly coined phrase ‘European Political Community’ was completely ignored by other participants. Same was the treatment meted out to his attempt to broach the subject of reform of European treaties, and this topic was even removed from the agenda of the meeting without a flicker. Two fundamental flaws are quite evident in his much-touted European policy; vagueness and unilateralism – or self-projection. These two key factors have been responsible for his failure so far in carving a ‘role’ for himself in the EU internal establishment.

There is a long list of his botched attempts to win the support from other EU leaders in the last four years for his long string of pro-Europe ‘initiatives’. In 2019, he made a highly acidic attack on the NATO bureaucracy by calling it a ‘brain-dead’ entity, which did not go well with his plea for the formation of the new European security architecture. During his election campaign in 2019, he came up with the idea of a conference on the future of Europe with an intention to launch deep institutional reforms. But this idea was watered down by other European leaders, showing complete indifference. Similarly, in December 2021, he co-wrote an Opinion piece for the Financial Times with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, in which they called for the creation of a new form of EU governance. But, to his utter disappointment, this ‘new thinking’ also went unnoticed at the much-pompous Versailles Summit in March this year.

Subsequently, on May 9, his over-ambitious speech in the European parliament on the same subject was also ignored and drew a disastrous response. Within a few days following this speech, the opposition rose to 19 out of 27 countries for ideas that could have — with more preparation, logical reasoning and enhanced diplomatic efforts — gathered emphatic support. The vagueness in Macron’s European vision is quite palpable. Unlike Germany’s prescribed vision to build the association on the model of a standard federal state, Macron is desisting from using the word ‘federal’ because of the possible backlash at home. At the same time, Macron is also not clear about the extent to which he is ready to sacrifice the veto powers of France in order to make this club more democratic for smaller countries, and whether France is willing to transfer most of its executive powers to the ‘federation’ – European Commission – and let the European parliament to trespass and overlap the French Constitution in case of any conflict of interest.

Go it alone attitude

The second problem with Macron, just like all other neo-populist politicians, is that he always appears to be riding on a ‘solo flight’ in the international arena, be it the EU expansion or the Ukraine invasion, he always throws an idea in the air and then seeks support for it, which he often fails to catch up later on. Instead of first discussing and selling his ideas to some select influential European leaders so as to pre-empt the possibilities of stiff resistance from the other club members, Macron always tries to go it alone in an ostensible effort to project himself as a sturdy and visionary statesman who is suitable enough to steer the European Union out of the current despondency.

Ironically, this approach of Macron’s is generally perceived as a self-serving and self-projecting attempt to remould the European Union in France’s image and interest. The recent poor performance of his coalition in the parliamentary elections has further inversely coerced Macron to desperately seek some successes in the international arena, particularly with regard to European integration, to bolster his image at home. Macron’s ambiguous – but ambitious – vision for a strong sovereign Europe directly collides with his domestic political agenda where the voters have visible aversion towards a ‘federal Europe’.

Macron is still unable to find a workable equation to create a balance between his domestic political compulsions and his ambitions to carve an assertive role in the European political community. The current drought, food crisis and impending winter crisis have complicated matters for an overly ambitious Macron, who has been spending more time to gambit in the international arena in an effort to win some score to muffle the growing internal pressure.

By DR. IMRAN KHALID