Europe

Macron Calls on Europe to Do More, Better

His nearly two-hour speech was long on vision, but short on specifics.

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Photographer: Ludoovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Two cheers for Emmanuel Macron. In his much-awaited speech on Europe Tuesday, the French president displayed a refreshing ambition accompanied by a willingness to compromise. What Macron lacked was detail: Filling it in will make the difference between writing a few lines of rousing rhetoric and the first page of history.

Macron is the first European leader since Helmut Kohl to display a true, unbounded vision for European integration. His speech, which lasted for nearly two hours, spanned a range of subjects from defense policy to the environment to the future of the European economy. Most of the proposals, which included a European defense fund and the harmonization of corporate tax rates, were not new. What was striking was the willingness to open these areas to negotiation among the EU partners.

Macron would like these talks to start soon. "You do not have the luxury of time," he told his fellow European leaders. Each individual country should decide its priorities and preferences in the first six months of next year internally, ahead of the 2019 elections for the European Parliament. The 2020 EU budget would be another important step: Macron would like to see more common resources going into it, to be spent to finance European "common goods." A European tax on financial transactions (something a number of EU countries have sought but not managed to agree upon) could fund greater overseas aid. All of this would be a bridge to the 2024 election for the European Parliament, where Macron envisages half of the parliament made up of MPs elected in transnational lists.

Macron was nothing if not courageous in steaming ahead with such a grandiose speech days after a messy German parliamentary election and well before a new government is in place in Berlin. But he certainly showed awareness of who his interlocutors will be. Germany is likely to be governed by a coalition of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, with the Greens and the Free Democrats as junior partners. Macron had a bit for everyone, including references to setting a carbon price high enough to help transform the European economy. His call for a euro-zone budget is unlikely to go down well with the fiscally cautious FDP, but he made a point of saying that this wouldn't mean socializing debt within the single currency.

Macron said he was more interested in "horizons" than "red lines." Deftly, he chose to cross some of his own. He proposed to reform the Common Agricultural Policy, a totem of French politicians since its inception in 1962. He was also open to the possibility of treaty change -- a prospect which has haunted French leaders since the embarrassing defeat of a European constitution in a 2005 referendum. Of course, Macron did not say how exactly he would reform the CAP or when he would seek treaty changes, which would trigger referendums in a number of countries. But his openings gave credibility to his call, particularly to Germany, to discuss everything "without taboo." "We do not agree on everything," he told Berlin. "At least not yet."

The main failing of the speech was that what it had in breadth, it lacked in detail. Macron said he was more interested in "ambition" than in "mechanisms," because vision is what the EU had lacked for years. However, this was an excellent way to avoid addressing the many sticking points that will emerge as his various proposals are discussed.

He proposed harmonizing asylum law and centralizing the distribution of the refugee burden, but failed to explain how he would reform the Dublin convention. He floated a tax on tech companies operating in Europe, but papered over the practical obstacles or political opposition which will no doubt come from countries hosting these firms, such as Ireland. Most importantly, it was not clear how big the euro-zone budget would really be: Size will be essential to determine whether it is just a symbolic step, or a true stabilization tool.

It would have been premature of Macron, however, to go into the specifics of his future vision for the EU. For a starter, he will have to understand what exactly will be acceptable to French voters among the many sweeping changes he proposed. Whether Berlin will sign up to it is an equally open and complicated question. For now, however, Macron's speech marked a significant change of pace from the gradualism which has characterized the EU after the signing of the Lisbon Treaty. His ambition can only be welcome.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Ferdinando Giugliano at fgiugliano@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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