For the first time in the history of European unification, a head of state has taken the unprecedented step of addressing all European citizens each in their own language. French president Emmanuel Macron recently did this with the precise aim of “chart[ing] together the road to European renewal”, given that “never, since the Second World War, has Europe been as essential. Yet never has Europe been in so much danger.” He sent out a message that, particularly in view of the imminent European elections, fully conveys the dramatic urgency of the present juncture and shows a clear determination to take steps to save the European project, through its own renewal.
Today, as the Brexit situation illustrates, the retreat into nationalism, which in reality amounts to nothing more than “rejection without an alternative”, is a danger facing the whole of Europe; but Europe also finds itself paralysed by a second danger, namely a sense of resignation to the status quo. Both are lethal dangers, and since the second is exacerbating the first, it is clear that the two must be overcome together, by managing to “politically and culturally reinvent the shape of our civilisation in a changing world”; in other words, by building, together, a new European renaissance, founded on three key needs: to defend our freedom, protect our continent, and recover a spirit of progress.
Ever since the start of his presidential campaign and his subsequent election to the French presidency, Macron’s stance on Europe has always reflected his realisation that a sovereign Europe is the necessary condition for restoring confidence in our societies. Accordingly, his political action has always focused on trying to launch a profound process of reform in Europe, designed to lead to the creation of a European-wide political power capable, alone, of rising to the challenges and problems we face. And he has done so in a state of isolation that has become particularly striking since he lost a staunch ally in Italy (an effect of the rise to power of nationalist and populist forces there); similarly, he has had to act without any real support from Germany (entrenched in its defence of the Community status quo), and in the face of political forces that have proved deaf and blind to all appeals to form a cohesive front in support of the common battle to strengthen Europe, and a European Parliament unwilling to stand alongside him and build a sovereign Europe together. All this only makes his sudden attempt to get around the impasse created by the inertia of friends and the hostility of enemies even more significant.
The current situation has forced Macron to step outside the existing rules and standard procedures; acting without mediation, he has taken the initiative to start a political battle, appealing directly to the forces that, like him, recognise Europe’s current state of peril, rather as though he were seeking to flush them out and force them to act: “We cannot let nationalists without solutions exploit the people’s anger. We cannot sleepwalk through a diminished Europe. We cannot become ensconced in business as usual and wishful thinking. European humanism demands action. And everywhere, people are standing up to be part of that change. So by the end of the year, let’s set up, with representatives of the European institutions and the Member States, a Conference for Europe in order to propose all the changes our political project needs, with an open mind, even to amending the treaties. This conference will need to engage with citizens’ panels and hear academics, business and labour representatives, and religious and spiritual leaders. It will define a roadmap for the European Union that translates these key priorities into concrete actions. There will be disagreement, but is it better to have a static Europe or a Europe that advances, sometimes at different paces, and that is open to all? In this Europe, the peoples will really take back control of their future.”
France, therefore, is calling upon the citizens to join the fight for a European federation. This is the light in which those who care about Europe should be viewing and understanding the French president’s initiative. The worst mistake politics could make right now would be to see no further than the single proposals included in, or missing from, Macron’s document, criticising them and allowing them to sow division. Macron’s intervention serves essentially to highlight the areas in which Europe must become capable of governing as one, in order to properly address the citizens’ fears and concerns, and he is therefore sending up test balloons on ideas that are still purely embryonic. His aim is to trigger a debate in which there will be a growing demand for a Europe capable of doing politics, and in the context of which it will at last be possible to embark on a profound reform of the Treaties.
Macron’s whole proposal revolves around his call for a conference for Europe, designed along exactly the same lines as a European Convention. Its ultimate objective is to bring about the creation of a sovereign Europe by those states wanting to participate in the project, allowing those not yet ready for this step to remain in Europe’s outer circle, from where they can weigh up when it is the right time for them to join. It is fundamental to appreciate that, in launching this initiative, Macron has effectively taken away the national governments’ de facto monopoly on the issue of EU reform that, until now, has always been confined to the sphere of intergovernmental negotiation, and shifted it from European Council level to the sphere of public opinion.
The stone thrown by Macron is certainly making waves in European public opinion: his idea has, albeit to different degrees, won widespread support among European political forces, inside and outside the European Parliament, and from many intellectuals and political scientists throughout Europe; and it is forcing previously more reticent players to come out into the open and state their positions clearly: in this sense we may take, as an example, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer counter-proposal, which, significantly, was published in five languages. Although some of its points converge with ideas, such as the defence question, raised by Macron, it also sets out a vision of Europe's future that is still very much based on the maintenance of the status quo and the defence of the role of the member states.
In the light of the above considerations, the upcoming European elections take on fresh significance. The French president’s call to action challenges the inertia of those who are unwilling to question the existing balance of power (in favour of the member states) in Europe, and appeals to those who would rather see the continet strengthened through the proposed conference for Europe, which would be entrusted with “defin[ing] a roadmap for the European Union that translates [...] key priorities into concrete actions.”
The Europeans, as an effect of their persistent division, are wasting time and resources: it really is time to act, in order to build a sovereign and federal Europe capable of ensuring that, once again, there is a model of supranational democracy and a message of peace, freedom and solidarity at the heart of the global political process.