French President Emmanuel Macron has been awarded the Charlemagne Prize 2018 in the German city of Aachen. This prize is given every year to public figures “having performed exceptional work for European unity” and counts historic world leaders such as Konrad Adenauer, Winston Churchill, Simone Veil, François Mitterrand and Pope John Paul II among its laureates. This year, the Charlemagne Prize Society honored the French President’s courageous “revitalization of the European dream” in the wake of rising nationalism in Europe.
He received the prize under the eyes of some of his predecessors such as Martin Schulz, Jean-Claude Trichet and Angela Merkel, who, interestingly, praised his enthusiasm for Europe and repeatedly addressing him with an informal “Dear Emmanuel”. On occasions like these, it is not uncommon to see some mutual pats on the back by politicians who stand for one of the closest partnerships on the international stage. Yet, in view of this, it is necessary to take a look beyond and analyze whether the current partnership is in fact as close as it appears and how the French President’s ideas are regarded in Berlin.
In terms of governing style and the way they present themselves, Merkel and Macron could hardly be more different. Whereas the German Chancellor is a cautious moderator of other people’s ideas, focused on facts and eventually supporting a compromise behind closed doors, the French President is not shy to voice his own vision, with a preference for symbolic settings steeped in history. One of Macron’s major speeches outlining his vision for a “re-foundation of Europe” was the one he gave at the Sorbonne University in Paris on September 27, 2017 in an auditorium packed with pro-European students. At the time, the German Chancellor was still digesting the German electoral shock and was certainly not anticipating that the formation of a new government would take her over half a year. However, the speech Macron gave, did not catch the Chancellor off-guard, as its content was agreed in detail between the two beforehand.
Similarly, the two successive visits by each of them to the White House in April of this year were very different in style, but both European leaders emphasized the importance of multilateral agreements and transatlantic partnership, as the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas pointed out.
The two Presidents did not miss an occasion to show their mutual admiration and their personal chemistry during the French President’s state visit. Angela Merkel’s visit to France, instead, was merely a working visit without the sideshow. Unfortunately, neither of the approaches was sufficient to achieve the goal Merkel and Macron had agreed on in private, making the US administration remain a signatory of the Iran nuclear deal.
This attempted “new special relationship” between the French and American Presidents might be regarded with a sense of bewilderment in Europe, yet it could be seen as part of a wider strategy. Whereas Merkel had a very close and personal relationship to Barack Obama, now it is Macron’s turn to have a special friend in the White House. Given the hard facts – the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement and the Iran deal – German jealousy is kept within limits.
While the German and French leaders pursue similar goals on the world stage, what about their plans for the European Union? In the German coalition agreement between the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the first chapter is about reforming Europe. The Social Democrats had insisted on putting this issue on top of the agenda, certainly responding to the French ambitions. In fact, before and after Macron’s electoral victory in 2017, leading Social Democrats, such as then Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and then SPD leader Martin Schulz, tried to rub shoulders with him, hoping that the his popularity in Germany would earn them votes at home.
Now that the new German government has been in office since early April, the Social Democrats’ euro-enthusiasm seems to have waned somewhat. With a renewed leadership, including Olaf Scholz as the new Finance Minister, ground-breaking reforms in the EU might now be less likely. When Scholz presented the government’s 2018 budget with the benchmarks for the upcoming years, it showed that he will continue the long-term plan of his predecessor Wolfgang Schäuble of not incurring new debts by reducing public investments in the long run. Similarly, SPD voices eagerly supporting Macron’s ideas of deepening European integration seem to have fallen silent now that they are either in government or out of the limelight.
So far, it is hard to see a major shift in German policy towards Europe now that the new government is in place. Apart from being more prominent on the international stage, France is now also undergoing major changes domestically. Emmanuel Macron not only wants to “re-found Europe”, but also intends to transform his own country in order to make it fit for purpose and catch up financially with Germany. He is determined to take on state-owned companies – and their workers – by cutting workers’ benefits enabling them to be profitable again.
In France, he is seen by his critics as someone who started on the left, as a former Finance Minister under Socialist President François Hollande, and is now eyeing economic reforms that the center-right would be proud of. From a German perspective, Macron’s plans of loosening workers’ protection against dismissal reminds many of the Agenda 2010, implemented between 2003 and 2005 by SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder whose goal was more flexibility on the labor market in order to reduce unemployment.
German media see Macron’s efforts of liberalizing the labor market as means to gain credibility in order to obtain goodwill from the German Chancellor. If he is able to emulate the German model by making his country’s labor market more flexible and reducing public debt, he can expect more responsiveness for his European plans from Angela Merkel. Although his proposals of reducing benefits for employees of the national railway company SNCFare creating controversy and strikes at home, where this is considered “a betrayal of the French model”, in Germany these cuts are merely considered as minor changes, especially compared to the conditions at its equivalent Deutsche Bahn, the German railway company. The different perspectives are also reflected by opinion polls from each side of the border. Whereas President Macron’s popularity has plummeted below 50% in early May according to a poll by Ifop-Fiducial, the most recent poll from DeutschlandTrend gives him an approval rating of almost 60% among the German public.
Paradoxically, should Macron see through his domestic reforms, proving he is serious about financial discipline, he would likely be less popular at home for his neoliberal reforms, but more popular abroad – and Germany might be more open to the project of a Eurozone budget and finance minister, backed by the French president. 90% of the German public still considers France as the most trustworthy partner, according to DeutschlandTrend. Furthermore, according to the same poll, more than 82% of the German public supports the fact that Macron wants to reform and modernize the European Union with his ideas.
External incentives like these, as well as the Charlemagne Prize, can encourage President Macron to be both more determined at home and more effective and inclusive on the European stage. Internally, next year’s crucial Europan election will show whether his initiatives have the necessary support of the French voters, or not.