A View From Brussels

Emmanuel Macron was elected as the new French President on 7 May, and sworn into office on Sunday. In a campaign that showed the profound divide on Europe within the French electorate, Mr. Macron was the only candidate with a truly pro-European programme, which he enthusiastically promoted. As he steps into the French Presidential shoes, now is a good time to examine what the Brussels bubble is expecting of Mr. Macron.

The first French President born with French and European citizenship

Only in Emmanuel Macron’s meetings were European flags waved in the crowd. And his Europhilia became even clearer just after this election.

As a first strong symbol and as a final riposte to Marine Le Pen, on 7 May, he walked up to the stage to deliver his victory speech to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the European Union anthem. He then gave his first official speech as President-elect on Europe day (9 May), praising this project initiated 67 years ago by Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman.

One of Mr. Macron’s closest advisors is Jean Pisani-Ferry. A co-founder of the Brussels-based think-tank Bruegel, Pisani is very well acquainted with the EU’s decision-making process, and is behind most of the new President’s proposals on how to reform the EU. He is also highly regarded within the Brussels bubble, a definite advantage to Mr. Macron.

The eurocrats, who dreaded the possibility of possible victory by Marine Le Pen, which in turn could have been a fatal blow to the European project, are relieved. This puts Mr. Macron in a powerful bargaining position from the very start of his mandate.

Reducing the gap between Europe and its citizens

Throughout his campaign, and in his first official speech, Emmanuel Macron outlined his project to reform Europe. As such, he has created a lot of expectations in Brussels, the first of which is to instill the European project with a new drive and purpose.

The new French President strongly believes in the European ideal, but is also conscious of the national divide on this question. His main objective is to bring Europe closer to the French people, to revive Europhilia in France. French people are not as Eurosceptic as some would like us to think: Marine Le Pen had to back-pedal on exiting the Eurozone in the last days of her campaign because it was unpopular with her electorate. French people feel European, but they want a renewed and reformed Europe. They want increased social equality and protection throughout Europe, a fair-playing field, as they feel that France may be losing out to the most recent joiners. The directive on detached workers served as the epitome of this phenomenon during the campaign, with all candidates wishing to either reform or scrap it. As such, the latest European Commission proposal on a European Pillar of Social Rights, that aims to build a more inclusive and fairer European Union could become one of the new President’s priorities.

However, this does not mean that Emmanuel Macron has given up on economic liberalism. French businesses are impatient for him to present his national economic, fiscal and labour market reforms. These reforms are viewed by the private sector as a way to promote and embrace the French business community, something France has not been doing as well as Germany or the Nordic countries. They could also increase the competitiveness of French companies, putting them on the same level as their European counterparts.

The discussions on the White Paper on the Future of the EU are currently ongoing, and Mr. Macron is expected to take a stance and favour one of the Commission’s scenarios. However, those in Brussels who are expecting Mr. Macron to promote European federalism may be wrong. It would be wise for him not to push for increased European powers, until the main concerns of the French citizens are answered. Mr. Macron needs to identify some ‘quick wins’ at EU level, which would show the French people, and most importantly people who did not vote for him, that the EU is doing good things for them. This will then free him up to push his agenda within the Council. 

However, two of his main campaign proposals have already discarded by high-ranking EU officials, in a move to show the new President that the EU may not be as easy to reform as he thought, and that - although they are happy with his election - their long-term strategy cannot be turned upside down by a newcomer. Commission Vice-President Jyrki Katainen voiced his opposition to his proposal of a “Buy European Act”, on the basis that it could distort the internal market. And Commission President Juncker, the day after congratulating the new President on his election, and rejoicing that he was defending “a strong and progressive Europe, which protects all its citizens”, declared that France was spending “too much money on the wrong things”. This comes as a warning that Mr. Macron should push for his fiscal and economic reforms at home, before reforming at an EU level. Indeed, Mr. Macron’s campaign proposal included the creation of a common fiscal policy, a Eurozone debt instrument and the completion of the European banking Union. He is also advocating for a joint finance Minister of the Eurozone.

The future of the Franco-German relationship 

Being a young, dynamic and charismatic leader could play in his advantage when meeting with the other 26 EU leaders. However, he will need to consolidate the Franco-German couple first, so it truly becomes one of the drivers of the European project. Domestically, France’s influence in the duo has been seen as dwindling over the past decade, and Emmanuel Macron is expected by many in France to rebalance the power struggle in France’s favour.

There is a good chance that the Franco-German couple will be revived, no matter who wins in Germany in September. And, until then, Mr. Macron may be in a good bargaining position as both Chancellor Merkel and SPD Candidate Martin Schulz are on the campaign trail to ensure their victories.

Yet, in a move reminding the new President that despite her national elections, she is still in power until the end of her mandate, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned him that France will have to eventually respect EU budgetary rules, pressing him once again to accelerate his reform plans, and highlighting that, unlike France’s, Germany’ budget is indeed in line with EU rules.

Beware of the Hollande syndrome

Right after his election, François Hollande created a lot of expectations in Brussels, as he was considered to be the spiritual heir of highly-regarded former Commission President Jacques Delors.

However, François Hollande’s preference for compromises, which should have given him an upper hand in the Council where compromise is the rule, was seen at the national level as if he was not standing up for France’s interests. This has, in small part only, contributed to widening the gap between the EU and the French people.

Emmanuel Macron’s issue could actually be the opposite: he will have to get used to this “esprit de compromis”. Back when he was Minister of the Economy, he showed his reluctance to watering down his reforms when he pushed for the Loi Macron to be adopted, with little consultation with the different stakeholders. For somebody used to progressing in leaps and bounds (Minister at 36, President at 39), the length of the European decision-making process may seem frustrating. The coming European Council on 22 and 23 June will be his first test. 

Once the legislative elections are over in mid-June, we will have more visibility on how much leeway Emmanuel Macron will benefit from at the national level, to push for his reforms at the EU level. But we already know that his election means hope for the future of the European Union, which, in itself, is already an achievement.

Mathilde Bouvier
Mathilde Bouvier

Mathilde Bouvier is an associate consultant in APCO's Brussels office. Read More