Macron’s European Trap

11 May

This article was originally published on the Cambridge University website.

By any account, the French presidential election that ended last Sunday was extraordinary. The run-off in the second round was between two political ‘outsiders’: Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. In the first round, the mainstream left and right candidates came fifth and third respectively, with the far left Jean-Luc Mélenchon coming in way ahead of the Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon. Many voters only decided late on who they would vote for, making this one of the most volatile elections on record.

The scandals affecting the centre-right candidate, François Fillon, overshadowed the campaign and relegated debates about political programmes into second place. In the run-up to last Sunday’s second round vote, a fierce argument raged – especially on the left – about the rights and wrongs of abstaining or spoiling one’s ballot paper. Political celebrities – such as the Greek Yanis Varoufakis – weighed in, urging French doubters to vote for Macron because “he is all that stands in between France and the fascism of Marine Le Pen”.

In the end, one in four of registered voters either stayed away last Sunday or spoilt their ballot paper.  What prevailed in the second round was the logic of lesser evil – voting for a candidate that is ‘not as bad’ as another – which goes some way to explaining the sombre tone of Macron’s victory speech on Sunday night at the Louvre in Paris.

For all the novelty, Macron’s election victory points to one important continuity: France’s complicated relationship with the rest of the European Union and its place within the Eurozone. When François Hollande was campaigning for the French presidency in 2012, it was the height of the Eurozone crisis with jobless figures reaching record levels and France’s economy in deep trouble. Aware of the opposition to austerity policies within France, Hollande promised to take-on the German government. He would discuss “firmly and amicably” with Ms Merkel and impress upon her the need for a new ‘growth pact’ for the Eurozone. His growth pact included proposals for Eurobonds to finance infrastructure spending and a transactions tax to fund development programs. His efforts came to nothing and the idea of a “growth pact” disappeared without a trace.

Something similar is happening today. Last Monday, a day after the French election, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a speech where she insisted that Macron’s victory would not change German policy in Europe. The German position is clear: France must reform its economy first, and bring its budget deficits well within the Eurozone’s rules, before there is any discussion on Eurozone reform. Even then, it is very unlikely that anything that was contained in Macron’s programme – creation of a Eurozone parliament, a Eurozone budget and a Eurozone finance minister – will see the light of day. Such changes would require treaty reform that national governments say is out of the question. Referendums have left European governments so bruised that they are unwilling to risk putting treaty changes to the vote.

There is an irony here. Macron has been an openly pro-European candidate, regularly waving the European flag and taking the Ode to Joy – the EU’s ‘anthem’ – as his own campaign song. And yet, this very pro-Europeanism is what will most constrain a Macron presidency. Most likely as a first step is that Macron will be pushed into cutting budgets and reforming labour markets, doing so possibly by decree given the history of opposition to such measures. In exchange, he may get some mild reforms of the functioning of the Eurozone but ones that fall short of any need for ratification through referendum or by national parliaments. This outcome may be part of Macron’s strategy, where the rigidity of the Eurozone’s rules is used as a means of pushing economy reforms onto France. Either way, the bigger difficulties, to do with structural imbalances of the Eurozone, will remain untouched.

A problem Macron never has confronted is that his promises to transform France’s national growth model are made within a context where Eurozone membership which makes such a change almost impossible. Macron’s election was extraordinary in many respects but his experience of life inside the Eurozone is likely to be rather more run of the mill.

Chris Bickerton

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