The president hopes that an optimistic message will serve as a counter to Zemmour's declinism
All I want for Christmas is a “powerful, sovereign” Europe, a reformed Eurozone, stronger external EU borders, progress towards an EU defence policy and, er, a minimum European wage.
President Emmanuel Macron gave a two-hour press conference yesterday introducing his plans for France’s half-year term as president of the European Union council of ministers from January. It was neither truly a press conference — it began with a 60-minute speech — nor a realistic summary of what France can expect to achieve in a six month presidency which will be disrupted by the French presidential election in April.
Macron’s performance was a tour de force in its own way. He gave an hour-long oration without notes or tele-prompter on a score of different subjects from migration to the EU budget, to defence policy, to a new era of EU African-relations, and to climate change.
It was a Christmas wish-list of everything that Macron believes should happen in the European Union over the next two decades, never mind six months from January. The EU, he said, should move from “a period of cooperation, to a period of power”. It should become powerful enough to assert its pooled “sovereignty”, militarily and economically, and not be bullied by the United States and China.
Some of his ideas — better political management and stronger external frontiers for the borderless Schengen zone — are already under discussion. Others – a jump forward in defence policy and the easing or abolition of the 3% of GDP limit on national budget deficits in the Eurozone — are deeply controversial.
No matter. There is little that can be achieved in the six months of the French presidency in any case. The French election will reduce its effective length to three months or even less.
In reality, yesterday’s Macron’s press conference at the Elysée Palace — only the second of his presidency — was the first speech of his re-election campaign. Macron has yet to declare that he will run again next year but he has been in de facto campaigning mode for weeks.
There has been a long debate within the Elysée on whether Macron should make his vision of a more powerful, “protective” Europe one of the central planks of his platform as he did in 2017. That argument has now evidently been won by the pro-Europeans within the Macron camp.
They argue that Macron needs to have an optimistic narrative to counter the “declinism” and miserabilism of his far-Right rivals, Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour. They also believe that a torrent of plans for the EU will embarrass the newly-selected centre-Right candidate, Valérie Pécresse — a devout European who rarely says anything about Europe and is torn between pro and anti-European wings of her party.
The Macron strategists say that voters — at least the centre-Right and centre-Left voters that the President needs — always react better to an optimistic campaign than a negative one. Having a positive vision of a strong France in a strong Europe will help him to hold onto or even expand his chunk of the moderate Left vote. It will cause problems for Pécresse, who can’t be too enthusiastic about the EU without angering her centre-Right party’s powerful nationalist-eurosceptic wing.
Does the strategy make sense? Is the future of the EU a vote-winner in France? For some in the political centre, it may be. Indeed, talking about the EU has won votes in the past in France — but whether it will be a winning issue in 2022 is far less certain.