The Parisian Mirror

Reactions to the recent French initiatives confirm that the V4 has become a region of convergence for various EU vectors functioning at different integration speeds

Milan Nič
18 October 2017

Although the main attention is now on the Austrian and Czech elections, it is worthy looking back at the Central European responses to a more assertive France in the EU. With perfect timing at the end of September, two days after the German elections and two days before the informal EU summit in Tallinn, President Emanuel Macron stole the spotlight. At the Sorbonne on September 26th, he presented the most ambitious French proposals and ideas on the future of the European Union in more than a decade. In sharp contrast to Berlin’s limited vision and ambitions, Macron reclaimed the leading role of Paris in shaping the future of the EU. The momentum for EU reform is now with France, not with Germany, goes the popular argument.

After Macron’s tour to Central and Eastern Europe some weeks ago, I wrote a critical piece about his plan to limit the “social dumping” from poorer member states while pushing for protectionist measures in the EU directive on “posted workers.” Among other things, I argued that the issue of “posted workers” is two-sided, given how painfully and slowly the process of economic convergence between the EU’s East and West has been moving. Pushing too hard to limit the rights of Polish construction workers or Romanian truck drivers – which comprise only a fraction of foreigners in the French labour market – might play into the cards of anti-EU political forces in Central Europe; it is a notable risk which should not be underestimated in Brussels, Berlin or Paris.

Now, after President Macron’s big speech on the future of the European Union, I’d like to shift focus to the broader picture and the political dynamics in Europe, looking critically at the short-sighted response from some of the Visegrad countries. My argument is similar but with the opposite twist: Macron’s drive and momentum on the EU level should not be underestimated.

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President Macron achieved at least three things by his Sorbonne speech: First, he framed the agenda for substantive debates on EU reform in six policy areas from defence to development. Second, he increased pressure on Berlin by offering Germans a partnership to further take the lead in some of these initiatives. And thirdly, he outlined a plan of how to sustain momentum behind his EU reform agenda – by organising “democratic conventions” in some EU member states, pushing for “transnational list” for the EU Parliament and teaming up with grass-root, progressive movements across the EU for a joint campaign in the European elections in 2019.

It’s a formidable workload. As a centrist and political novice, President Macron is not part of any relevant EU political grouping. All that enthusiasm and symbolism around his Sorbonne speech could not hide a simple fact: on the EU level, Macron is hostage to others, in particular to Germany. When it comes to the eurozone, Berlin still calls the shots. Germany also carries most of the weight in most other EU policy areas.

Compounding all of this, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was just re-elected to her fourth mandate but her new government with liberal FDP and Greens will be weaker and internally more diverse than all previous ones.

It will face loud opposition in the parliament – led by the increasingly populist SPD and the xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD). As Daniela Schwarzer observed, “given the Bundestag’s central role in shaping Germany’s EU policy, this could weaken the capacity of Merkel’s government to provide the kind of leadership Europe now needs.”

The process of post-Brexit reconstruction of the EU is now expected to move in the coming months. It was formally started a year ago at the Bratislava summit but then never really took off. The main actors were waiting for the European political calendar to clear up, and only after the French and German elections is the EU political scene finally set for serious talks and decisions. In the following months, we will probably witness intensive attempts to shape the direction Europe takes over the coming years. It was confirmed at the informal EU summit in Tallinn on September 28th as leaders held a frank debate on future common policies concerning, though not limited to, budgets, defence, migration, economic issues and the eurozone.

Based on this discussion, which had a significant French overtone due to Macron’s Sorbonne speech, the EU Council President Donald Tusk was tasked to consult his partners in the EU’s capitals and propose how to take the process forward. An intensive “special period” of formulating and negotiating new policies for deeper EU cooperation is expected to start in earnest only in early 2018 when Germany will have a new government. The window of opportunity for hard decisions could last until the next European Parliament elections in Spring 2019. Around that time, talks about the next EU budget (or Multiyear Financial Framework – MFF), ahead of the next 2020-2027 period, should also be closing down.

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President Macron knows perfectly well what he needs from other EU leaders. In spite of being in the Elysee for only a few months, he has already held talks with 22 out of the 28 EU leaders, some of them repeatedly (with Chancellor Merkel, already nine times!). These intensive consultations allowed him to get an overview of the interests as well as potential flexibilities of his EU partners.

Macron’s long list of new initiatives was a deliberate tactical choice to make sure that each EU country or constituency can find something there to support. There was a number of issues that the V4 countries could be satisfied with, including their own agenda of food quality or Macron’s inclusive approach to EU security and defence. It means that the French agenda for EU reconstruction is not only based on the eurozone but also on several other EU policy areas, in which Paris might take the lead, not Germany. On the other hand, Visegrad capitals are rightly cautious about French proposals for converging corporate tax rates (rather than living standards), raising labour standards and scaling down the number of commissioners in the next EU executive body.

Yet most reactions to Macron’s speech in the Visegrad countries were timid at best, and some even outright dismissive. The Hungarian Foreign Minister, Péter Szijjárto, told Al Jazeera that, in his country and across the whole region, Germany is much more important than France. Andrej Babiš, widely assumed to be the next Czech Prime Minister after the upcoming elections (October 20-21), remarked that President Macron should focus more on reforming France rather than the EU, warning that a drive for deeper integration could lead for more members following the U.K. in leaving the EU.

In contrast, most reactions of political leaders in Germany on President Macron’s speech were either politely sceptical or outright positive. As expected, the Greens and FDP, two smaller parties likely to form the new coalition government with Merkel’s conservative CDU-CSU block, showed different approaches. While the co-leader of the Green Party, (and potential new German Foreign Minister) Cem Özdemir, welcomed Macron’s “strong speech” and called for closer collaboration with Paris on the EU reforms, FDP’s leading candidate for that position, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, was more reserved. He also welcomed the Sorbonne speech as ‘brave and refreshing’ but criticised the French proposals on tax harmonisation and the eurozone budget.

Seeing it from the optimist angle, the Central European reactions mostly fell within the same range as in the post-election Germany. However, I believe that there’s a huge underlining issue. As the German democratic establishment is coming to terms with the shock of having the extremist AfD as the third largest group in the new Bundestag, it will be more sensitive to extremist language and behaviour from other EU partners, and the language of Central European populists sounds, in the German political context, very much like the AfD.

What I hear in Berlin is not encouraging for the current Polish and Hungarian ruling parties: a prospective Jamaica coalition could be a tougher partner to the Central European governments than the grand coalition used to be. Both the Greens and FDP will be more outspoken when it comes to any disrespect of EU laws and values, including media freedoms, human rights and democracy.

Some V4 leaders and governments might be naive to think that they can continue to rely on Berlin while dismissing the new wind for the EU future blowing from Paris. If they are suspicious about the new wave of French protectionism creeping into EU policies on the back of the President Macon’s enthusiasm for Europe, they better be busy coordinating with the Dutch and Nordics about defending the rules of the single market. Yet, there are few signs from Warsaw and Budapest about such considerations.

At this decisive moment in Europe, the long-term interests of Central Europeans also depend on the realignment of Europe as a whole – and therefore also on their bilateral relations with France and Germany. By casting themselves as the main opponents of the French-driven reform agenda, Poland and Hungary are very likely to lose even more influence in the EU; further weakening the whole Visegrad Group and the combined negotiating power of all four countries before talks about the new EU budget have even started.

In the meantime, because of Slovakia’s eurozone membership and constructive approach to President Macron’s initiative as well as the Czech’s pragmatism (which might to some extent continue under Babiš) coupled with their strong bilateral relations with Berlin and Paris, both countries will become more influential in the post-Brexit EU than their Visegrad neighbours. After the French and German elections, Central Europe continues to evolve into a region where different EU vectors and integration speeds are converging.

Milan Nič is a Senior Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)

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