Macron is not enough for Europe

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Emmanuel Macron

Germany is half caught up in its domestic woes, the United Kingdom has half a foot outside the EU's door, Italy is already halfway into the next general election, and Spain is traumatically split in half. The European Union expresses the strength and the weakness of its individual members, the nation states. Yet, the very existence of the Union – built upon nation states – makes them more vulnerable to internal tensions. Scotland and Catalonia, each in their own unique way, look to a post-national European future.

Amidst this latent crisis of national European democracies, Emmanuel Macron's France aspires to lead a Europe that he wants to be – according to his September 26 speech at the Sorbonne – "sovereign" in a globalized world. What he means by that is a Europe capable of defending its values and its interests. French sovereignism (a legacy from the past) is diluted in European sovereignism (an aspiration for the future).

Is Paris Europe's new leader? The quick answer is "no; hold your horses!" France still needs a strong German shoulder to lean on, but after the election in Germany it certainly cannot take such a thing for granted. What the French President is in fact proposing is a two-headed Europe, with France holding the military and political leadership while Germany plays the economic and commercial pillar.  It is crucial for Macron to shake off previous Elysée incumbent François Hollande's second-in-command approach to the Franco-German axis. To achieve his purpose, Macron is turning Brexit to his advantage: With Britain's departure (although speaking in Florence, Theresa May postponed her country's departure from the single market to 2022), France is now the only UN Security Council member and nuclear power in Europe. Macron's openly stated decision is to use this specific weight to build a European defense system strongly molded by France – belated nemesis for the French National Assembly's famous rejection of the EDC, the European Defense Community blueprint that was killed in Paris in 1954.

Thus far the two countries are likely to agree even after the German election, because a future coalition led by Angela Merkel is going to continue to be in favor of the development of a European defense system in any case, up to and including the forging of a "structured cooperation" in which Italy and Spain will also be taking part.  For a country such as Germany, which is extremely reluctant to exercise hegemony in Europe, it is not a problem to allow France to enjoy the limelight in that sphere. The real issue – the issue that is decisive for balances in the Old World – is how ties with Washington and with Moscow are going to evolve. The way European defense is envisioned today, it still presupposes NATO's existence. In the wake of Brexit and in light of the crisis in confidence between Trump and Merkel, Macron needs to steer well clear of any new Gaullist tendency and to keep the United States firmly on board.

That is a priority for our country too, and it is a priority in which Italy will have a role to play. Apart from anything else, separation from Washington and "silent neutrality" toward Moscow (as some German observers are labeling their country's instinct today) would split the EU irremediably along an East/West axis.

The second leg of a "sovereign" Europe – the euro area and its reform – is even more complicated. The reason for this is very simple. France is looking for a European Union that spends more in defense of common interests, while Germany wants a Europe capable of keeping that spending under control. This has spawned very different theories on the euro area budget and on a prospective European finance minister's duties. The new German coalition, in which the Liberals are likely to hold the economic and financial portfolio, is going to be even more stringent in that sphere. Indeed it is no mere coincidence that Macron's pro-European speech at the Sorbonne did not arouse a great deal of enthusiasm in Berlin or that it immediately split the Liberals and the Greens.

Yet there is a factor that we should not underestimate. A change, however partial, in the German domestic economic model would be just as important for convergence in the euro areas as a general reform of European governance. The future coalition, with Merkel's fourth mandate, could well make inroads into the static nature of Germany's economic policy. An increase in domestic consumption and investment in Germany would reduce the imbalances in the euro area. We shall have to wait and see.  But if Germany were to become even more stringent with regard to the reform of Europe's economic governance, that increased stringency could be made up for by greater domestic flexibility. From both an economic and a political viewpoint (an initial decline for the traditional parties, potential instability, and the AfD's entry into the Bundestag) Angela Merkel's final mandate could mark the end of the German exception: Germany like everyone else, or Germany first but in a normal European way.

In all of this, Italy's essential interest is not to harbor too many illusions. It is true that this phase of German introversion, combined with France's pro-European solitude, opens up new room for maneuver for our country.  But it is true also that European cooperation does not eliminate "peaceful rivalry" among member states. Our negotiating clout in Europe and in bilateral ties is not going to depend on others, be they friend or foe. It is going to depend solely on our domestic political and economic solidity. While Germany, thanks to its recent general election, has in some ways become a European country just like any other, Italy with its upcoming general election is going to have to make sure it stays one.

An Italian version of this article has been published in the newspaper La Stampa on October 2.

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