What Macron Means for Europe 'How Much Will the Germans Have to Pay?'

Emmanuel Macron represents an opportunity for Europe, one the Germans would be wise to take advantage of. It is doubtful, though, whether Angela Merkel will be able to act on the French president's bold vision.
Von Jürgen Habermas
French President Emmanuel Macron

French President Emmanuel Macron

Foto: Michael Probst/ AP

For Walter Benjamin, Paris was the capital of Europe. For Robert Menasse, the Austrian author with a penchant for both irony and defiance, it's Brussels' task to prove itself worthy of replacing it. That, though, is a fragile hope and Menasse - recently awarded the Deutscher Buchpreis, Germany's most prestigious literary award - tempered expectations in an interview with Berlin-based daily Die Tageszeitung by relating a telling anecdote about an evening with a German correspondent in a smoky café in Brussels frequented by journalists. He was sitting there when the journalist received his latest Brussels dispatch back from his Frankfurt-based editor with the injunction: "Your writing is too convoluted. Just write how much the Germans will again have to pay."

It would be hard to find a more succinct enunciation of the limited interest shown by German politicians, business leaders and journalists when it comes to shaping a politically effective Europe. A timid and compliant press has spent years abetting our political class in doing everything possible to avoid discomfiting the public at large with the issue of Europe. This disenfranchisement of the public could hardly have been better demonstrated than with the carefully abridged list of issues up for discussion in the single so-called debate between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her challenger, Martin Schulz , ahead of recent parliamentary elections. During the decade of the still smoldering financial crisis, the chancellor and her finance minister were likewise allowed to pose as true "Europeans" - in direct contradiction to the facts.

But now, Emmanuel Macron  has appeared onstage and could - despite his flattering and considerate efforts at cooperating with a weakened chancellor currently under duress from her own party - lift the veil that has been draped over this smug self-deception. The "realistic" voices at Germany's most influential newspapers seem to be concerned that the words of the French president might open the German public's eyes to the emperor's new clothes: that people may begin realizing that the government in Berlin, with its vigorous economic nationalism, is actually wearing nothing at all.

In the first chapter of his recently published book, subtitled "How Germany Risks Losing a Friend," Georg Blume collects doleful examples from both politicians and journalists of the patronizing approach Germany has adopted in the meantime with regard to France and the French. From the very beginning, some commentaries on Macron have fluctuated between indifference, arrogance and anticipatory defensiveness. And aside from one cover story in DER SPIEGEL, the reaction in the German media to the French president's carefully crafted Europe speech ranged from weak to nonexistent.

It is the kind of material that would be perfect for a comedy, but the incoming coalition government in Berlin, which will likely include Merkel's conservatives, the business-friendly Free Democrats and the Greens, could transform it into a tragedy - if, for example, Christian Lindner of the FDP takes over the Finance Ministry and seeks to carry on in the vein of Wolfgang Schäuble. In a "non-paper" for the Eurogroup of finance ministers from the common currency zone, the erstwhile finance minister drafted a plan designed to block every compromise with the forward-looking initiatives put forth by the French president. In the paper, Schäuble links the establishment of a European Monetary Fund, as proposed by Macron, to the favorite ordoliberal dream of precluding democratic participation for those affected by withdrawing financial and economic policy from the realm of politics and placing it under the control of a technocratic administration.

Historically Unrivaled Opportunity

This is roughly the frustrated tone I am tempted to continue with. But the situation is far too serious for that, because the next German government (insofar as anyone still wants to play) must now take possession of the ball kicked into their half  of the field by the French president. Even just pursuing a policy of delay or forbearance would be enough to gamble away a historically unrivaled opportunity.

Seldom have the contingencies of history emerged so prominently than with the unexpected rise of this fascinating - perhaps blindingly so, in any case extraordinary - person. Nobody could have predicted that an independent minister from the government of the previous French president, François Hollande, would be able to, in a kind of self-centered solo run, create a new political movement out of nowhere and upend an entire party system.

It was contrary to everything the pollsters thought they knew that a single person with no party attachment could succeed within the brief period of a political campaign in winning over a majority of voters with a confrontational platform of deeper European cooperation in opposition to a growing right-wing populism that every third French voter supported. The fact that someone like Macron would get elected in a country whose population has always been more skeptical of the European Union than Luxembourg and Belgium, more skeptical than Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal, was simply not likely.

When looked at dispassionately, though, it is just as unlikely that the next German government will have sufficient far-sightedness to find a productive, a forward-looking answer when addressing the question Macron has posed. I would find some measure of relief were they even able to identify the significance of the question.

It's unlikely enough that a coalition government wracked by internal tension will be able to pull itself together to the degree necessary to modify the two parameters Angela Merkel established in the early days of the financial crisis: both the intergovernmentalism that granted Germany a leadership role in the European Council and the austerity policies that she, thanks to this role, imposed on the EU's southern countries to the self-serving, outsized advantage of Germany. And it is even more unlikely that this chancellor, domestically weakened as she is, will refrain from step forward to make clear to her charming French partner that she will unfortunately be unable to apply herself to the reform vision he has put forth. Vision, after all, has never been her strong suit.

On the other hand, and this is the question that I find most intriguing: Can Merkel, a strikingly intelligent, conscientious and contemplative politician, a product of a Protestant pastor's household who has thus far been spoiled by success, can this chancellor really have an interest in ending what will be a 16-year tenure in the Chancellery by playing such an inglorious role? Will she simply step down after four more years of muddling through and crumbling power? Or will she defy all those who are already whispering about her downfall, show true stature and jump over her own shadow?

Blinded to a Destructive Tendency

She too is fully aware that the European currency union, which is in Germany's most fundamental interest, cannot be stabilized in the long term if the current situation - characterized by years of deepening divergence between the economies of Europe's north and south when it comes to national income, unemployment and sovereign debt - is allowed to persist. The specter of the "transfer union" blinds us to this destructive tendency. It can only be stopped if truly fair competition across national borders is established and political policies are implemented to slow down the ongoing erosion of solidarity between national populations and within individual countries. A mention of youth unemployment should serve as example enough.

Macron hasn't just drafted a vision, he specifically demands that the eurozone make progress on corporate tax rate convergence, he demands an effective financial transaction tax, the step-by-step convergence of the different social policy regimes, the establishment of a European trade prosecutor to ensure that the rules of international trade are adhered to, and much, much more.

On the other hand, it is not these individual proposals, some of which have been around for years, that distinguish this politician's demeanor, initiative and speech from that which we have become used to. Three characteristics stand out:

  • the courage to shape policy;
  • the commitment to restructuring the European elite project to subject it to the democratic control of its citizens;
  • and the convincing manner of a person who believes in the power of words to articulate thoughts.

In his September 26 speech, Macron addressed not just the students of Sorbonne University but also the German political class when he repeatedly invoked the very French term "sovereignty," which only Europe - and not each single nation state alone - can safeguard for its citizens. Only under the protection and only with the strength of a united Europe, he said, can its citizens uphold their common interests and values in these tumultuous times. Macron played "genuine" sovereignty off against the chimeric sovereignty purported by the French "sovereigntists." He called out the undignified spectacle of national politicians who complain at home about laws they themselves pass in Brussels and he demanded nothing less than the founding of a new Europe, one capable of wielding political influence both at home and abroad.

Changing the Status Quo?

It is this self-empowerment of European citizens that he means when speaking of "sovereignty." When it comes to identifying steps toward institutionalizing this newfound clout, Macron points to closer cooperation in the eurozone on the basis of a joint budget. The central and controversial proposal reads as follows: "A budget must be placed under the strong political guidance of a common minister and be subject to strict parliamentary control at (the) European level. Only the eurozone with a strong and international currency can provide Europe with the framework of a major economic power."

By demonstrating the pretense of applying political solutions to the problems facing our globalized society, Macron distinguishes himself like few others from the standard fare of chronically overwhelmed, opportunistic and conformist politicians that govern day after day with little in the way of inspiration. It's enough to make you rub your eyes: Is there really somebody out there who wants to change the status quo? Is there really someone with sufficient irrational courage to rebel against the fatalism of vassals who unthinkingly kowtow to the putatively coercive systemic imperatives of a global economic order embodied by remote international organizations?

If I understand him correctly, Macron is articulating an interest that has not been spelled out, and is thus not represented, in our political party system between the day-to-day neo-liberalism of the "center," the self-satisfied anti-capitalism of the left-wing nationalists and the stale identitarian ideology of the right-wing populists . Among the failures of social democracy is the fact that a brand of politics that is fundamentally pro-globalization, one which pushes Europe forward yet nevertheless keeps an eye on the social destruction caused by untamed capitalism and thus pushes for the necessary transnational regulation of important markets - that such a political impetus, despite a modest push by Sigmar Gabriel, never managed to gain any kind of discernible traction. Gabriel would likely only have had the elbow room necessary for pushing such an approach forward if his party would have remained in a grand coalition with Merkel's conservatives, and if he, himself, would have become finance minister in such a scenario.

The second factor separating Macron  from other political figures is his break with a silent consensus. There has long been an unspoken assumption in the political classes that the concept of a Europe for Citizens is much too complex - and the final goal of European unity is vastly too complicated - to allow the citizens themselves to become involved. And that the day-to-day business of Brussels politics is only for experts and for the rather well-informed lobbyists, while the heads of state and government resolve the more serious conflicts that arise out of conflicting national interests among themselves, usually through deferral or preclusion.

Breaking Taboos

More than anything, though, political parties agree that European issues are to be carefully avoided in national elections, unless, of course, domestic problems can be blamed on Brussels bureaucrats. But now, Macron wants to do away with this mauvaise foi. He already broke one taboo by placing the reform of the European Union at the heart of his election campaign and rode that message, only one year after Brexit - against "the sad passions of Europe," as he said - to victory.

That fact lends credibility to the oft-uttered trope about democracy being the essence of the European project, at least when Macron says it. I am not in a position to evaluate the implementation of the political reforms he has planned for France. We will have to wait and see if he is able to fulfill the "social-liberal" promise, that difficult balance between social justice and economic productivity. As a leftist, I'm no "Macronist," if there is such a thing. But the way he speaks about Europe makes a difference. He calls for understanding for the founding fathers, who established Europe without citizen input because, he says, they belonged to an enlightened avantgarde. But he now wants to transform the elite project into a citizens' project and is proposing reasonable steps toward democratic self-empowerment of European citizens against the national governments who stand in each other's way in the European Council .

As such, he isn't just demanding the introduction of a universal electoral law for the EU, but also the creation of trans-national party lists. That, after all, would fuel the growth of a European party system, without which the European Parliament will never become a place where societal interests, reaching across national borders, are collectively identified and addressed.

A Shift in the Public's Perception

Should one hope to accurately assess the significance of Emmanuel Macron, a third aspect must be examined, a personal characteristic: He can speak. His is not merely a case of a politician who, through his rhetorical ability and sensitivity for the written word, is able to secure attention, standing and influence. Rather, the precise choice of inspiring sentences and the power of his articulation lends analytical clarity and sweeping significance to the political thought itself. The quality of one's work as a politician, of course, isn't measured by rhetorical talent. But speech can change the public's perception of politics; it can raise the level of discourse and broaden the horizons of public debate. As such, it can improve the quality not just of political opinion and the formation of political will, but of political action itself.

In an era where the nebulousness of talk shows has become the benchmark for the complexity of publicly acceptable political thought, Macron is conspicuous for the style of his speech. We apparently lack the ability to appreciate such qualities, or even fathom the timing and location of his speeches. Indeed, the speech that Macron recently delivered in Paris city hall on the occasion of the anniversary of the Reformation wasn't just interesting for what he said. It wasn't just a clever attempt to use the confessional wars in France to urge the adaptation of a state doctrine - the strict French laicism - to the demands of a pluralistic society. The occasion and subject of the speech were also a gesture to the Protestant formation of the culture of France's neighbor to the east - and to his Protestant counterpart in Berlin.

The aspiration and style of the symbolic representation of state power is, of course, something we have lost sight of, at least since Carl Schmitt's nostalgic view during the French counter-enlightenment of the 19th century. We may not have a sense for the gravitas that comes with living in the Élysée Palace, as described by Macron in his recent interview with DER SPIEGEL . Nevertheless, the rather intimate knowledge of Hegel's philosophy of history he displayed when answering a question about Napoleon being "the weltgeist on horseback" is again rather impressive.