For reform and seamless integration of the creaking European Union, visionary leaders are needed.
This being said, pure thinkers are no longer welcome. We have had too many before. What Europe needs are doers with sufficient skill, staunch public support, and a record of leadership in their respective countries. The leadership I am referring to is comparable to that of the founding fathers of the EU and the authors of major Community reforms. Angela Merkel, re-elected for the fourth term of office, may qualify as well.
By contrast, the leadership skills of the French President Emanuel Macron, who delivered a speech on his vision of European integration in Sorbonne University a few weeks ago, still have to prove their worth. And this is certainly not the best of times for this. Following an unexpected twist in the French presidential elections, Macron’s presidency became a foregone conclusion long before he actually embarked on his presidential duties. Moreover, even before taking office, Macron was heralded as a leader capable of reforming the EU. I need not remind you that excessive enthusiasm may be toxic, as was proven in the case of Barack Obama and the disproportionate zeal for awarding him with the Nobel Peace Prize during his first year in office.
However, French economy is mired in serious structural problems. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) argues that the essential problem of the French economy is that growth is too slow. Nearly three million people have no jobs, which translates into an unemployment rate of 10.2 %. For the sake of comparison, the figure stands as low as 4.3 % in Germany.
By the same token, the youth unemployment rate in France is close to 25 %. In violation of the fiscal discipline of the EU, France also has an excessive budget deficit and public debt.
Macron has proposed some medicine to address these ills, in particular through the liberalisation of the notoriously protectionist labour market. He is, however, confronted with considerable opposition, while tangible solutions are not yet available. Nonetheless, the French President is already offering to deepen the fiscal integration of the EU by creating a centralised eurozone budget (separate from the current EU budget? Funded by whom?) and establishing the position of a finance minister of the eurozone.
He was economical with details as to the exact responsibilities of the finance minister of the eurozone and ways to ensure legitimacy of the office even though, as it is, the European Union is still a community of sovereign countries and not a federation. Therefore, the common budget can only function the way it currently does, and cannot be managed by a single seconded person.
According to Macron, the eurozone budget should be financed by tougher taxes on the Internet giants (such as Amazon and Google) for their operations within the EU and by climate change-related levies. In the long term, contributions from national budgets of eurozone countries are envisaged. Here again, a natural question is what the budget is needed for. Under the proposal of the French President, the budget is to be invested into joint EU projects and secure economic stability in the event of a crisis. As regards the former, it is now fully covered from a variety of structural funds. As to crisis management, 2011 saw the creation of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to meet the purpose.
Therefore, the rationale behind Macron’s proposal seems to lie, in fact, in harmonising the fiscal and tax policies. The so far existing differences between the economies of the old and the new EU Member States offer the latter a certain advantage. If Macron’s proposal is to be implemented, the ills of the French economy (namely, its lack of competitiveness) may be addressed through the proposed reform of the eurozone.
Another package of proposals by Macron is geared towards EU integration in the area of defence, since, according to the French President, the EU is too slow, too fragile and too inefficient in this regard. Here again, minor aspects aside, he proposes the establishment of a common defence budget as well as the creation of an EU intervention force and a common intelligence academy.
The idea of setting up a European intervention force can be obviously traced back to the reform of the French army. In fact, the intervention force for rapid response to sprouting conflict or conflict in progress within the interest zone of France is among the cornerstones of the renewed French army. The priorities of the French National Security Strategy, taken as they are and coupled with the traditional French foreign policy, offer a clear picture: priority is given to French vested interests, in particular insofar as protection of the overseas territories and former colonies is concerned.
The security interests of France are a far cry from, say, the interests of Lithuania. In French understanding, the EU intervention force under Macron’s proposal should focus on hot spots such as Mali. Be as it may, I wonder if he would approve of their use against, for instance, Russia-supported separatists in Ukraine? Let me put it into context: already in 2013, the French National Security Strategy claimed the need for partnership relations with Russia. The Strategy is still valid.
Europe can grow strong, rapid and efficient enough by fulfilling the commitments agreed upon in the framework of the NATO defence funding. This requires no separate EU defence budget. Therefore, the exaggerated security claim seems to be a cover up for a proposal that, in the long term, will translate into the EU’s federalisation in areas that are now exclusively within the competence of the Member States. This assumption is supported by Macron’s confirmation that soldiers of other EU Member States have the right to become part of the French army. This is blatantly reminiscent of an extended and Europeanised version of the French Foreign Legion.
Jean Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, referred to Macron’s address at Sorbonne as a “very European speech”. This is only natural, if we remember the dramatic Juncker’s last year’s annual address on the threats to the EU project and the need to review the functioning of the Community. This year, he returned to the traditional jovial narrative of deepening the European integration in all directions. Alas, nothing has changed in Brussels. The series of failed victories of the far-rightist parties leads to business as usual in the bubble of the European capital.
In his annual address last month, Mr Juncker gratifyingly made a special mention of Lithuania on the occasion of the centenary of independence of the country and stressed the need for Europeans to be more aware of the Eastern European historical memory. In substance, however, his narrative followed the usual Brussels formula yet again. He proposed strengthening the powers of the supranational institutions, namely, putting a single person in charge of the Council and the European Commission, and drawing up pan-European party lists for elections to the European Parliament. This is well in line with the Brussels routine, just as the proposal to adopt more decisions by qualified majority, which will produce adverse effects for small countries and will strengthen the power of the big ones. It is worth recalling the proposal initiated back in 2013 by the European Parliament that is totally neglected in the public space. I am referring to the proposal on a mechanism whereby the EUMS will be regularly assessed on their continued compliance with the fundamental values of the Union and standards of democracy and the rule of law. The objective sounds promising. However, as ever so often, the devil is in the detail.
EU’s desire to strengthen the mechanisms supporting the rule of law as by far the most fundamental feature of democracy is relatively abstract and sound in principle. However, its implications lie further afield. Substantially in excess of its competence and in violation of the sovereignty of Member States, the Union is attempting to operate as a supervisory body and monitor whether EU Member States adhere to the “European values” as understood by technocrats in Brussels.
Thus, the vision suggested by the French President Macron seems to be well attuned to the shared interests of the European Commission and the European Parliament to deepen the federalisation of the European Union. At the same time, the vision seems to have a particular France First flavour, as both the reform of the eurozone and the defence integration under Macron’s plan offer considerable benefits to France.
Strong euphoria of the European institutions and the big EU Member States arising from the failure of the anti-European forces to gain real power should not lead to repeating the same mistake of promoting “integration at any cost.” The anti-European sentiment has not yet disappeared altogether and its failure of becoming entrenched in France or the Netherlands does not mean that it is becoming less relevant. The results of the Alternative to Germany only confirm this.
I therefore believe that we should not talk about any new integration initiatives in areas that cause serious disagreement. All the more so if this is further limiting the sovereignty of Member States. Today, effective application of the existing EU acquis, coupled with economic growth, is the best alternative for ensuring the stability of the EU.
Audronius Ažubalis is a member of the Homeland Union–Lithuanian Christian Democrats Political Group in the Seimas and member of the Seimas Committee on European Affairs.