Macron’s plan to win over … Germany
BERLIN — Call it bunny rabbit diplomacy.
When French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron visited Berlin in March, he spared a thought for the newborn daughter of his friend Sigmar Gabriel — by hand-delivering a stuffed toy rabbit to the German foreign minister.
Amid rampant Euroskepticism and some strong anti-German feelings at home, Macron’s outreach effort — he visited Berlin twice this year, more than any other candidate — was not an obvious political choice. It brought accusations that he was kowtowing to a “dominant” Germany, especially after he won a potentially poisonous endorsement from German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, the driving force behind EU-mandated austerity policies.
But as the vote draws near, Macron’s camp argues that his efforts to woo friends in Berlin and Brussels was “good populism.” By presenting himself as the guarantor of the Franco-German partnership, they say, Macron placed his bets on pro-EU sentiment in France while laying the groundwork for overhauling the eurozone if he wins the presidency in a run-off on May 7.
“Emmanuel is convinced that the French electorate is profoundly pro-European, despite what the populists would like us to believe” — Sylvie Goulard, MEP and adviser to Macron
With the election’s first round looming on Sunday, it’s a high-stakes wager. If Macron fails, France could end up being run by National Front chief Marine Le Pen or far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, both of whom want confrontation with Berlin and a radical reorientation of France’s foreign policy.
But if he succeeds, Macron will have written the first page in a new chapter of EU history. It’s one in which Paris and Berlin will have no choice but to work more closely together, now that Britain will no longer be around to act as a buffer between the bloc’s twin pillars.
“Emmanuel is convinced that the French electorate is profoundly pro-European, despite what the populists would like us to believe,” said Sylvie Goulard, an MEP who advises Macron on EU affairs. “Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon want a confrontation with Germany, but they are not living in reality … Ours is the responsible choice.”
In conversations with POLITICO in Paris and Berlin, aides to Macron sketched out a far-reaching vision for eurozone reform that includes granting the currency bloc a budget, a parliament and finance minister to remedy its chronic governance problems.
Macron’s camp acknowledges that such plans for closer integration are bound to face skepticism as Britain prepares to exit the EU and Hungary lurches further away from the bloc’s principles. And in Germany, politicians embrace Macron but remain skeptical of his ability to carry out domestic reforms if elected. Of particular concern is whether the candidate, who is running on an independent political platform, will be able to win a majority in June’s parliamentary election.
The 39-year-old brushes aside such worries, vowing to win a “strong majority.” To turn the tide of skepticism, he offers not a confrontation with Germany but a hard look in the mirror for France — starting with an audit of public finances, labor market reforms and a commitment to respect the bloc’s deficit rules. Only after France has put its house in order would work commence on broader reforms in the EU.
The process is bound to be long and tricky. But Macron, more than any other candidate, has been at work to rebuild confidence in Berlin. His courtship started long before he launched a long-shot bid for the presidency, back when he was still serving as President François Hollande’s economy minister.
Shouting in the dark
Back in mid-2015, the climate in Europe was grim. Leaders were locked in endless, down-to-the-wire negotiations about a bailout for Greece, with Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel playing good-cop, bad-cop with the eurozone’s most problematic member.
This was the context into which Macron launched his first plea for eurozone reform. With his German Social Democrat counterpart Gabriel (then minister for economic affairs and energy), the young minister published a series of op-eds arguing that Europe needed to carry out reforms urgently, or face its unraveling. Amid hand-wringing over Greece, the unlikely duo — Macron is slender, tight-suited and fast-talking; Gabriel is heavyset, plainly dressed and ponderous — pressed their case at various hastily arranged press conferences at which they waxed lyrical about the need for closer integration.
“So long as our leaders believe that Europe can be managed day-to-day without a stronger legal framework and always in a reactive way, we will have a ‘Brexit’ and a ‘Grexit’ and tomorrow others will be looking for a way out,” Macron told journalists in one encounter at a luxury Paris hotel.
The response from Macron and Gabriel’s bosses was silence. But as it turned out, the two economy ministers were right. A year later, Britain had voted to leave the European Union. Greece was stumbling from one funding crisis to the next. And Macron, increasingly frustrated at his government’s lack of reformist drive, was preparing to leave Hollande’s cabinet to launch En Marche (On the Move), the independent centrist political movement he hopes will carry him into the Élysée presidential palace.
Gabriel and Macron failed to pull off any political victories, and the effort lost its mojo. But Macron had succeeded in one respect: He had made a name for himself in Germany. Addressing German ambassadors in Berlin, he won over a crowd by vowing to put an end to the “religious wars” that divided stern and thrifty Northern Europe from the free-spending, solidarity-minded South.
“There is always skepticism in Germany when France puts forward proposals,” Macron told POLITICO at the time. “The Germans reply: ‘Are you ready for greater convergence?'”
Germany rolls out red carpet
In March of this year, Europe was once again on a cliff-edge — and Macron was in the center of the action. As France hurtled toward a national election, his Euroskeptic, pro-Kremlin rivals were sharing nearly 50 percent of the vote between them. If the Greek crisis debt crisis had been a warning to Europe, this was a bright-red alarm screaming in the cockpit.
With the EU’s future on the ballot, Macron traveled to Berlin just a few weeks after conservative candidate François Fillon had paid a visit to the German chancellery. Normally Fillon would have been Merkel’s most natural choice for a French partner, given their shared conservatism. But the former prime minister had become embroiled in a scandal over disputed payments that threatened to derail his candidacy.
So it was Macron, not Fillon, who was looming large as Germany’s best hope for France. Merkel met him en privé, but the curtains in the chancellor’s office were left open during their meeting, allowing photographers to document the occasion — as much as Berlin protocol would allow to show favor for a foreign candidate running for office.
After the chat, Macron invited reporters to an improvised news conference right in front of the chancellery door, a choice of locale that said: In a few months, I could be walking through this door as president of France. “I had an interlocutor who was very open to a stronger French-German partnership, particularly at this important moment for Europe,” Macron said.
His insistence on Franco-German ties was more than the standard boilerplate. Britain was about to trigger formal divorce proceedings from the EU, piling pressure on the Franco-German bond. With the U.K. — long a buffer between welfare-obsessed France and more pragmatic, liberal Germany — no longer around to play referee, both countries would have to steel themselves against old reflexes of mutual blame.
“Germany never needed a strategy [in the EU],” said Andreas Schwab, a German Christian Democrat MEP from the South-West, close to the French border. As long as the U.K. was part of the bloc, EU negotiations played out according to a familiar script, he said: “The Commission proposed something, the U.K. would find it difficult, the French would be all for it, and Germany just needed to mumble about the Bundesrat,” the country’s second chamber of parliament, where a structural majority for the government is far from the rule. “That won’t work any longer.”
With Germany and France about to be left alone in an elevator, having a reform-minded Frenchman in the Élysée would lower the risk of clashes — a fact that helps explain Macron’s cheerful reception and the German media’s less-than-critical treatment of the “star” candidate, as he was dubbed in the mass-circulation daily Bild.
Behind the good cheer, however, there were still questions. Would this upbeat Frenchman be able to win a majority in parliament to carry out his reforms? Even then, how would he overcome the administrative state that has strangled reform efforts for decades?
“We did our best to reassure the Germans on this point by pointing out that the candidate has the support of dozens of elected officials and a popular movement of more than 200,000 supporters,” a Macron aide said. “He will get a majority, and he will use it to carry out his plan to the letter. Remember that unlike the other candidates Emmanuel does not owe anyone favors. His hands are free.”
Macron’s centrism means that in Germany, he is acceptable to both the conservative Christian Democratic Union and center-left Social Democratic Party, whose candidate for the chancellery, Martin Schulz, Macron had met in January. After his visit to Merkel, the French candidate dropped in on Gabriel, who later waxed effusively about his visitor. “With Macron in France and Schulz in Germany,” said Gabriel, “we could change a few things in Europe.”
Forgetting that a Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, was also running in France, the foreign minister went so far as to offer Macron a quasi-endorsement as “the only candidate on a pro-European course” and “someone who has earned our support.” His cheerful tone concealed unspoken angst. If Macron failed, Europe could be headed into a long, dark night.
Now for the hard part
In typical fashion, by paying equal heed to German conservatives and center-leftists, Macron was hedging his bets. But campaign staffers argued that it made little difference who won because a German chancellor will always stay true to certain fundamental beliefs regarding France and the European Union.
“In France, we tend to overestimate the impact of the German election, as if an SPD government would somehow mean that we could mutualize European debt overnight,” Goulard said. “There will be no such impact.”
“There are German traits of mind that will not change,” she added. “You don’t mess around with the rules. You don’t fiddle with the stability of the currency. You don’t question the central bank.”
German officials agreed. While Schäuble wants to squirrel away the country’s tax revenues and Schulz wants to spend them on welfare (in Germany), no one wants to splurge them on Greece or, worse to some extent, France.
Instead of fighting the German mindset, Macron aims to mollify it via reform. “Why have we not overcome certain obstacles after four French presidents? Because confidence is not there,” said another aide. “We want to get out of this routine where France wants to share leadership of Europe while not respecting its decisions. It’s time to face up to our responsibilities, which includes not just reforms at home but also European investments, as well as anti-dumping measures at the EU level.”
Practically, Macron’s plan to boost confidence in France is to start with a “robust audit” of public finances to uncover any inefficient spending by the Socialist government. Having made a clear break with Hollande’s legacy, Macron will put forward a first budget proposal that will aim to show how serious he is about reform. “This first budget will be our chance to show we are getting down to business,” said Goulard. “There is no time to wait. Brexit imposes a calendar on us.”
With Germany and Italy due to hold elections over the next year, President Macron would have time to put French public finances on a firmer footing. He also plans to scale down the number of civil servants by 120,000 — or a bit more than 2 percent of the total — free up hiring-and-firing rules and create tougher back-to-work incentives for the unemployed.
Only after he had sent a clear signal to Germany and the European Commission would Macron roll out the next phase of his plan: convincing partners, starting with Germany, to hold public consultations in all eurozone member states on their views on the bloc’s future. Modeled on the “crowdsourced” approach that Macron brought to his own election campaign, the consultation would aim to enlist democratic support for future reforms.
“There is no question of attempting any institutional change without bringing European peoples on board,” said the second aide, who works on Macron’s foreign policy platform. “We need to break with the idea that Europe is some distant entity that does whatever it wants without popular support. The next phase will be eminently democratic, rooted in popular expression.”
Assuming eurozone populations sign off on a tighter union, Macron could turn to the bigger task of proposing a eurozone budget, parliament and finance minister.
This won’t be easy, even if Macron hopes to pull this off without any changes to European treaties. He has already spent plenty of effort trying to build up goodwill with European commissioners including Jean-Claude Juncker, Valdis Dombrovskis, Jyrki Katainen and Andrus Ansip, all of whom were consulted in the run-up to the election.
But as always in the EU, the real challenge will lie with national governments. If Macron is to get all of the eurozone members on board, he will need as much goodwill as he can get, especially in Germany. A hand-delivered plush rabbit might have been a smart first down payment.