French President Emmanuel Macron recently laid out his vision for European integration over the next seven years in a speech at the Sorbonne University in Paris. Chief among his suggestions were a pan-Eurozone budget, pan-EU lists at the next European parliamentary election, and even a big step toward an EU military. Macron’s plan, if executed, would be the most ambitious leap into integration since the common currency. The president may be accustomed to getting his way in France, but reforming the EU is an entirely different exercise, involving coordination between 27 member states. In particular, Macron must gain approval from Germany, the bloc’s largest, most powerful member. With its recent election producing a fractured German parliament, the French President’s ambitions are set to meet a formidable roadblock.
Macron enjoys a good deal of power at home, with most of his presidential mandate remaining, and a significant majority of seats in the French National Assembly. He has even gone so far as to enact his infamous labour reforms by presidential decree, a little-used power in France effectively allowing the president to circumvent parliament.
But to make decisions at the EU level is a completely different beast. Not only does any proposal have to generate agreement between a majority of member states, but they are traditionally built on agreement between Germany and France –the bloc’s two most powerful countries. Typically, French and German leaders align their positions prior to EU-wide discussions, forming a solid base of intentions and desired outcomes.
Having set out his intentions, Macron must now convince German Chancellor Angela Merkel of their validity. His ability to do so is not clear, however, due to Germany’s federal election results.
The September 24 election produced a fractured parliament, with six parties obtaining seats in Germany’s federal parliament, the Bundestag. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), along with their Bavarian sister party obtained the largest share of the vote, garnering just under 35% of seats. This means that, in order for Merkel to govern, she must either form a coalition or risk a minority government. In either case, she needs to take into account what other parties want.
The next largest party, the social-democratic SPD, has refused to form another “grand coalition” with the CDU, like the one agreed to following the 2013 election. As Merkel has no interest in forming government with the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) or the socialist Left Party, she is left with the option of a three-way “Jamaica” coalition (so named because of party colours) between the CDU, the economically liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the environmentalist Greens. There is precedence for such a coalition in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, but important questions remain over this kind of alliance’s resulting policy positions at the federal level.
In particular, the FDP’s leader, Christian Lindner (pictured above), has run on a platform opposing pooling Eurozone debts –a move that aligns with German public opinion, and runs against Macron’s vision. The French President is no doubt aware of this, stating in his speech that the endgame is not to “mutualize debts of the past”. However, this is likely too little too late. The FDP was wiped off the political map four years ago as a result of joining a coalition with the CDU. They have every reason, therefore, to hold firm on flagship electoral promises this time around.
Beyond coalition talks, the elephant in the room for German politics is that the anti-establishment AfD has not only entered the Bundestag for the first time since it was founded in 2013, but become its third largest party. Merkel’s gradual migration to the political centre on issues ranging from the environment to gay marriage has alienated the CDU’s core, conservative supporters, as did her decision to invite hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants in 2015 and 2016. What resulted was a political vacuum, which was eagerly filled by the AfD. The more Merkel’s government seeks compromise with European integrationists like Macron, the more it will hurt her at home, feeding the narrative that she has lost touch with millions of her compatriots.
Merkel’s actions as chancellor over the past twelve years indicate that she is largely in favour of European integration. However, she is also a political animal, responding to the signals she receives from her electorate. In this latest election, voters clearly indicated that more of the same will not do. As radical as Macron’s proposals are, they represent more of the same: deeper European integration as a panacea to the continent’s ills is a recipe that has been touted since the EU’s inception. Such solutions have not worked in the past, serving only to further alienate citizens from political decision-making. With any luck, the next German government will heed the warning issued by voters, and resist the French President’s proposals; if it doesn’t, it may not last.