(Update 19.03: corrected misspelling of Kramp-Karrenbauer)
Earlier this month something unprecedented, as far as I recall, happened in European politics. The head of state and government of a member state of the EU, France’s Emmanuel Macron, directly addressed the citizens of all the EU countries, simultaneously, in no less than 22 European languages. In doing so he bypassed the usual intergovernmental channels completely and the filtering systems of 28 nationally organised media at least partially.
While the unusual form of the address ruffled some feathers, it drew a high-level response. The general-secretary of the CDU, and likely Germany’s next Chancellor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK), issued a response, made available in five languages. Beyond the significance of the fact that Germany’s response came not from Angela Merkel, but the likely next head of government, this exchange constitute shoots of a tree whose stunted growth has long been considered a critical weakness of the EU: a European public space (Öffentlichkeit).
But what of the content? Here the differences are marked, but in the context of the upcoming European elections that may not be a bad thing.
Macron: chastened but persistent
Macron’s starting point is Brexit, which he sees both as an expression of Europe’s weakness – specifically that it “has failed to respond to its peoples’ needs for protection from the major shocks of the modern world” – and as an illustration that nationalist populism is a dangerous trap peddled by the ignorant and untrustworthy. The EU needs to meet citizens’ needs for “protection” if they are not to abandon Europe and fall under the spell of nationalist pied pipers.
The right response, he argues, is first, to emphasise where Europe already does effectively enhance individual member states’ policy space, and second to reform Europe’s capacity to act. He proposes that reform should occur in three broad areas under the nebulous titles of freedom, protection and progress, giving in each case illustrative examples.
- Freedom: a European Agency to protect Democracy from foreign intervention, bans on foreign funding of political parties and European rules against hate speech and other internet-based abuse.
- Protection: strengthening border protection and the common asylum system, a defence treaty, with a mutual defence clause and higher spending, and an emphasis on fair (rather than “free”) trade and competition, with tighter controls over foreign enterprises and a more strategic industrial policy.
- Progress: a continent-wide “social shield” (presumably minimum standards), a minimum wage norm, and concerted push on climate change, for example with a European Climate bank.
As a mechanism to push for change he calls for Conference for Europe, which appears to follow the same philosophy as his grand débat in France. He ends with a nod to a multi-speed Europe as an alternative to stasis and, closing his rhetorical circle, a belief that such a Europe will be one in which the Brits will wish to remain or rejoin.
Without going into specific measures, three things are worthy of note. Macron has toned down the lyrical volume compared with his Sorbonne speech. The emphasis is on identifying areas where an institutionalised European approach offers advantages to member states in delivering solutions that meet citizens’ demands and thus makes them less discontent both with their national governments and with the EU. Second the form that this institutionalisation might take is often left open and is likely to vary from policy field to policy field. Third, what is not mentioned is also important: economic policy coordination and Euro Area reform – a major preoccupation of the past few years – has been dropped. Clealry Macron has concluded he is on a hiding to nothing here. Equally “scary” subjects like the size of the EU budget and reform of the EU institutions are also left out.
This lends Macron’s proposals a certain superficiality, even if the desired direction of travel is clearly stated. It is hard to imagine how. In unblocking progress, discursive exercises involving citizens can substitute for reducing the veto points in EU decision-making. This, in turn, means some combination of reducing the size of majorities needed to agree on EU-wide legislation and enabling greater use of multi-speed elements, i.e. allowing coalitions of the willing to move ahead.
AKK: icebergs ahead
AKK’s response, entitled “Getting Europe Right”, came swiftly and is moderately detailed. There is an initial overlap of language and purpose with the call by the French President: Europe’s successes need to be recognised, but it needs to enhance its capacity for collective action. There is also – on the surface – a degree of thematic overlap. Some of the priorities mentioned by AKK echo those of Macron; examples include fighting tax evasion, strengthening border control and defence capabilities (peppered with the off-the-wall example of building a European aircraft carrier), and support for technology and innovation, notably in the area of climate change. She also avoids Euro Area economic governance.
Beneath the superficial harmony, however, lie four icebergs. The first is AKK’s repeated emphasis on subsidiarity and intergovernmentalism and the classic ordoliberal theme of aligning political responsibility and liability. This approach is fundamentally at odds with Macron’s vision, which is incrementally federalist. Related to this, secondly, AKK emphasises the need to respect countries’ idiosyncrasies, explicitly mentioning Central and Eastern Europe. In a short-run perspective this implies tacit support for countries that Macron has portrayed as having a fundamentally different and regressive vision of Europe and, in a longer run perspective, a view that integration should proceed at the speed of the most reluctant and thus a rejection of Macron’s ideas of coalitions of the willing forging ahead. Thirdly, she not only accepts, as Macron does, that populists have economic grievances that need to be taken seriously, but plays to islamophobic fears, blaming immigration as a primary cause of increasing social heterogeneity and pushes populist talking points like the tax treatment of EU officials. Lastly, she waves, seemingly gratuitously, three red flags at the French bull, calling into question the French permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the status of Strasbourg as a seat of the European Parliament and the need to reduce agricultural subsidies. It is not that these proposals have no merit, but the casual way they are introduced, without any indication that this could involve a quid pro quo in terms of German policy changes, must surely be seen as confirming all those in France, and elsewhere, concerned about the overweening power, not to say arrogance, of Europe’s largest country.
A common public space does not mean agreement
It rather seems that – beyond some rather nebulous common ground – the French President and Germany’s likely next leader hold very different visions of the right direction of travel for Europe. Building common institutions, strengthening the capacity for common decisions and permitting enhanced cooperation by integration-friendly coalitions, all with the aim of taking the wind out of the populists’ sails, on the one hand; on the other, a doubling down on the virtues of intergovernmental cooperation, subsidiarity, respect for national differences and at least partial acceptance of the cultural and identity-related arguments of nationalist-populists.
It is true that it is election time and AKK is speaking as leader of the CDU. She is concerned to staunch losses to the EU-critical and anti-immigrant AfD. If the next German ruling coalition is with the social-democrats or the greens, then the government line will certainly be different; not, though, in the not implausible case that the next coalition government is with the market-liberal FDP. Still, the huge gap between the two discourses does not bode well for the prospects of reforming Europe in the near term. Macron had waited for a long-time for a positive response from Germany to his earlier initiatives. The Meseberg agreement and subsequent policy steps have been very limited, even if the recent Franco-German Aachen Treaty contained some aspirational language and initiatives. Now, economic policy issues having been largely dropped, a response from Germany has been forthcoming, but underneath a thin veneer, the language is at best unwelcoming and in places seemingly gratuitously provocative.
Yet establishing a European public space and key leaders agreeing are two different kettles of fish. The articulation of different visions has the advantage of bringing into focus a clear choice for European citizens at the end of May. In the next European Parliament and Commission voters can strengthen those forces seeking to strengthen common institutions (maybe accepting a multi-speed approach) and collective problem-solving, or those who see the intergovernmental mechanisms in which the Council plays the key rule, defining minimalist solutions for the whole block, while maintaining and even increasing national veto powers. A European public space is a venue for robust debate about the future course of the EU. It will not be created overnight, but Macron and Kramp-Karrenbauer’s exchange is a step forward.