Brussels has woken back up; but it's not only the trams and metros that are seeing themselves filled to the last remaining standing spot, the political machinery has also been rebooted. For French president Emmanuel Macron, the pitch is out for his EU reforms; but unlike last time, the EU now has other priorities.
Back in April, Macron laid out his vision for the future of the European Union in his speech in front of the European Parliament's plenary in Strasbourg, including the appointment of a Eurozone finance minister, as well as deepening the integration of a European army. The speech was well received by EU federalists and those in the institutions who see their legitimacy threatened by growing euroscepticism. With German Chancellor Angela Merkel weak in her coalition, Emmanuel Macron is the only European leader who could possibly take the role of a European reformer. And that is his precise intention.
Macron has marked his appearances in the European Council by demanding the introduction of a so-called “digital tax” on companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, as well as calling for a “Eurozone finance minister” and a budget for the 19 states that share the common euro currency. Macron also suggested the introduction of a minimum wage in individual member states in order to “renew the European social model.” While 25 member states are gradually integrating their military forces through the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO)—including upgrades to maritime surveillance, armoured infantry vehicles, and artillery—Macron has made it crystal clear that “Europe is devoted to creating a common military force, a budget of a common defence, and of the doctrine of common defence to act.”
In order to achieve his European dreams, Macron needs two things. First, he needs Germany. The Franco-German friendship has long determined the scope of the EU, and if Paris and Berlin agree on something, Brussels tends to follow their lead. With Germany governed by an aimless and purely opportunistic coalition government and with the United Kingdom (long opposed to more EU centralisation) out the door, Macron should have little problem getting what he wants. This has left him in the role of Europe’s unofficial leader, and the sudden French dominance of the political situation has become evident in both Paris and Berlin. Former foreign minister of Germany Sigmar Gabriel told the German press back in October that “France is dominating Germany on EU initiatives by 10 to 0.” The French newspaper Le Figaro, meanwhile, quoted a French government minister saying “Macron is a young and strong power; Merkel is a weak and fragile power.”
The European Union finds itself in a massive debate over migration. Ever since waves of migrants began arriving on the shores of Europe, states have implemented very different responses, ranging from a complete refusal to accept them to criticism of countries that "don't do their part." In an effort to sort out the mess, the EU finds itself even more divided.
Germany has been the most permissive country when it comes to allowing migrants on its soil. Even last year, when the number of new migrants was comparatively low, the country still recorded over 180,000 new arrivals. Despite the EU internally struggling over solutions for immigration, Angela Merkel is also under pressure by her own political situation at home. In last year's elections, the far-right "Alternative für Deutschland" (Alternative for Germany) reached 8 percent of the vote, despite the fact that some of its prominent candidates advocate shooting refugees at the border. But even Merkel's decades-long ally, the Bavarian centre-right CSU (Christian-Social Union), has turned more anti-immigration in recent years and is demanding an end to system provisions that allow migrants to pick and choose which European country they want to stay in.
Most migrants are currently using the path through Libya, where human smugglers channel them across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy, leaving small Italian towns to manage the situation. Italy argues that member states should accept that some action needs to be taken outside of Europe to stop the problem at its origin, and that there need to be facilities to check the "authenticity" of migrant claims before they enter official procedures. This is ultimately what the European Council announced after a summit at the end of June: "controlled" migrant processing centres will be set up within Europe that will swiftly distinguish between genuine asylum seekers and irregular migrants, who would then be deported. Furthermore, the EU will try to create facilities around the northern African coast in order to deter migrants who just left Libya.
In the meantime, Central European nations, such as Hungary, Austria, or Poland, are also very sceptical of the way immigration is being handled inside the European Union. The Italian government is now even announcing that it might stop sending money to fund the EU if other countries do not start to share responsibilities.
All of this is happening while the Brexit negotiations are critically close to the date on which the UK officially leaves the union in March next year. Both sides are strapping in for a no-deal solution and are hardly convinced that Macron's reform plans are anywhere near to being a top priority in Europe at present.
In his speech on the future of Europe, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte pointed out that we shouldn’t attempt to do more together, but figure out a set of key areas we want to work on together, and do them right. That should be the exact attitude towards Emmanuel Macron’s plans for more centralisation in Europe. The European Union now has other priorities, than to model the magnificent European future that the French president is daydreaming about.
Pictures are Creative Commons.