French President Emmanuel Macron swept to power in 2017 on a pro-EU, anti-far right ticket, determined to reshape the bloc in his image with the help of German chancellor Angela Merkel.
But his early ambition to deepen Europe’s ties in a host of areas — including a common budget for the Eurozone — was soon replaced by fudge and vague promises, as Merkel’s support cooled and backing didn’t materialise from other EU states. Attempts to use the Franco-German relationship as the bedrock of a unified Europe have been overtaken by the obvious divides between Berlin and Paris. These have ranged from how to manage Brexit to how to respond to the US president Donald Trump’s trade threats and how to improve the common currency.
Macron acknowledged the disagreements with Berlin in a speech to the nation last week, and even took aim at Germany’s flagging economy. It’s all very different from two years ago.
Some of these differences are decades old, of course. France’s high-spending, high-taxing dirigisme (state control of economic and social matters) has clashed frequently with Germany’s commitment to austerity, structural reform and having the rest of the Eurozone follow its lead. Politically, too, the countries are at different ends of the federalist spectrum. France pushes for European integration, and Germany asks its neighbour to put its economic house in order first. As Zaki Laidi of Sciences Po puts it: “France proposes, Germany is indisposed.”
Still, Macron hasn’t helped matters. Whether by tactical error or political naivety, the 41-year-old banker’s focus on Merkel has made a difficult job even harder. Engineering a shift of this magnitude within German politics demands more than just the assent of the chancellor; the country has a long history of coalition governments, its biggest parties are under new leadership and the public is hostile to bailouts and burden-sharing with spendthrift EU partners. A former adviser to Macron, Shahin Vallee, has lamented the Elysee Palace’s obsession with Germany’s “boss”.
This evidence of the president’s political flaws won’t be a surprise to many in France, where his “Jupiterian” distance from lawmakers and officials lower down the food chain was part of the reason why he and his team failed to see the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) coming. In Germany, any political points that he scored with his fellow titan Merkel haven’t flowed down from the top as hoped, simply because that isn’t how the system works there. The reaction from Merkel’s own conservative bloc to the 2018 Meseberg Declaration — the Franco-German partnership aimed at reinvigorating the EU project — was highly critical, despite all of its compromises and omissions.
There has been a similar lack of buy-in from other EU member states, with one diplomat saying of Macron’s grand designs that “those with visions should go see a doctor.” Separately, the Dutch premier Mark Rutte has countered French ambitions by building ties with the more fiscally cautious Nordic and Baltic states to fight federalism, a grouping known as the New Hanseatic League or Hansa (it comprises of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Sweden). The Franco-German Aachen Treaty — a deepening of the alliance between the two countries — was also poorly received by some “lesser” EU nations. Some in Brussels grumbled that it looked like 1950s Europe all over again.
Macron’s shift last week to a much more strident tone against Germany is a recognition that his domestic difficulties are paramount right now, especially with his campaign for May’s European parliamentary elections not going well (Marine Le Pen leads the polls in France). His pitch to quell the gilets jaunes has been to splash out €15 billion ($16.8 billion, Dh62 billion) in handouts and tax cuts — a clear snub to Berlin’s penny-pinchers — and to promise a Europe that “protects.”
There’s nothing wrong with squaring up to Germany in theory, given that country’s need to rebalance its economy and ease its attachment to savings. But, as the Germans themselves might say, it will be easier to do if Macron puts France on a more equal footing first.
Lionel Laurent is a noted columnist covering Brussels. He has previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.