Macron and Europe: What priorities?

A few months ago, three of Europe’s leading populists – Geert Wilders, Frauke Petry and Marine Le Pen – met in the German provincial town of Koblenz to inaugurate the ‘Year of the Patriots’. This celebration was a bit premature, however, as not one of them has managed to win a single election. The resounding victory of Emmanuel Macron was, of course, the key element in this turning of the populist tide. But the recent regional elections in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia also showed the German element of this populist trio in decline and even the US President seems to have become a fan of the EU.

With the eurosceptics, at least temporarily, in retreat, the EU should be able to start moving again. But in which direction? 

To many, reforming the euro area seems an obvious first step. Only a few years ago the euro seemed on the verge of collapsing and even today the high cost of the ‘euro crisis’ can be seen in pockets of high unemployment lingering in too many countries. But it might be a mistake to concentrate too much on economic themes. Falling living standards and high unemployment have of course provided a fertile breeding ground for populists in Europe. But closer analysis shows that other factors have played a much more important role. Terrorism and immigration, with the associated fears of being overrun by foreigners, have in many cases been much more important themes for radical populists than unemployment and living standards. The danger of focusing on the economy is also that there are no quick, and certainly no European fixes to the underlying problems, like the long-standing stagnation of the Italian economy or the lack of jobs in France. Reform of the euro area, of course, is needed at any rate to make it more resilient. Purposeful steps in this direction, such as completing the banking union or raising a modest euro area budget to foster investments, are needed to ensure its long-term survival, although these will not deliver a strong short-term boost to the economy. The euro area in any event is enjoying a broad-based recovery, which is making the economic problems less salient. It is also unlikely that the potential voting base for populists will diminish much because of some technical improvements to the banking union or some new euro area scheme to support investment (which will only materialise many years after the announcement).

In other words, for Europe it is not, or no longer, “the economy, stupid”.

The new opening for integration should be used to address the key concerns of voters, many of which seem to be related to security, both internal and external. For example, steps should be taken to strengthen the capacity of the EU to guard its external border, possibly via a European Coast Guard, and at the same time to distribute the burden of receiving and integrating immigrants more equitably across the entire Union. 

This is a particular concern in Italy, the last big EU member country slated to hold its election soon. For French and German voters, security might be a more important concern. Strengthening the role of Europol and information exchange among security services are concrete steps that might not yield immediate results, but they would show that the EU can improve the security of its citizens in tangible ways.

And finally there is external security and defence. In an increasingly uncertain world, this is another area where the value added of the EU could be very large. Creating a stronger European defence capability would also be popular, as opinion polls have shown for a long time. This would not necessarily entail the creation of a European army, but a lot could be done to ensure that Europe gets more security from the €190 billion spent collectively on defence by the 28 EU member states, each of which maintains its own armed forces, none of which is capable of providing much security on its own (see the recent CEPS Task Force Report Regroup and Reform).

The victory of a young, Europhile President in France should be seized as an occasion to reform the EU. But the individual priorities must be chosen carefully.