The EU needs to seize the Macron moment

The European Union is changing. As it emerges from the economic downturn, it is facing new challenges, including climate change, migration and Britain’s imminent departure from the bloc. The European Commission’s response, in March this year, was a White Paper on the Future of Europe, timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. But can the EU reform itself? In the first in a series of articles by Burson-Marsteller’s senior advisors on the future of Europe, David Harley considers how the political landscape in Europe is evolving.

The election of Emmanuel Macron as French President offers the European Union a unique opportunity to reshape itself more boldly than it has in a generation. If Angela Merkel is also confirmed as German Chancellor after the federal elections in September, then the Franco-German motor will be aligned in both timescale and in vision, giving the EU the chance to make the audacious, much-needed reforms it has shied away from for too long.

The European Commission attempted to provide some guidance on reform with its White Paper on the Future of Europe. It is a logical initiative. With the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Treaty of Rome, Europe wanted a joint statement on where it is going. And with Brexit looming in the background, the EU suffered from a crisis of confidence. It came on the back of other reverses for Europe, including the election of Donald Trump as US President, the migration challenge that peaked in 2015, the rise of populism, a resurgent Russia, and the ongoing euro crisis. With so much in the mix, it was almost impossible for Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker not to react.

At the time, the mood was gloomy. It was before the French elections, and we were talking not just of the future of Europe, but the survival of Europe. That explains why the Commission’s paper, and its menu of options, was so unambitious.

I’ve worked for the EU for 35 years, and lived in Britain for the past seven, but still cannot escape the conclusion that the Future of Europe exercise was more about the EU institutions talking to each other rather than to citizens.

Europe’s political landscape is transformed

But in the short time since the White Paper was published, the European political landscape has been transformed. This is mostly to do with the election of Macron, who boasts a radical vision for Europe. If ever there was a time to turn conventional wisdom on its head, it is now. We should take a leaf from the Macron playbook and go all out. There is no point in descending into self-absorbed debates that do nothing so much as recall those medieval questions about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The EU should not be treading water. Ultra-caution will do little to reverse its image problem

It may be a cheap point, but we should concede that the EU is often seen as an elitist project. Many, especially in Mediterranean countries, equate it with unfairness and inequality. The Commission’s White Paper does not address the popular perceptions.

This relates to a wider trend that we recently saw in the British general election campaign this year. People are fed up with austerity and inequality. This anger, which British voters appear to have shown this past June, suggests that there is more our political classes can do to redress the balance for ordinary people.

Europe needs to regain the trust and confidence of young people. We saw it with Macron in the French elections, and we saw it in the British elections. Some 1.7 million young people registered for the first time for the 2017 British elections. Even earlier, we saw how voter registration, especially with the young, was a key part of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008. Europe should try to echo this.

Politics is often skewed against young people. It is hard to vote. Students increasingly find more and more obstacles in the way of higher education. Housing is becoming costlier. There is something wrong with a system where there is a low paid, low skills economy. It has become a downward spiral.

EU must tap the fire of youth

So when young people get involved, show responsibility, and become engaged, we should take note. And we should see how they do it, not least through social media, where many young people get their news these days.

The EU should tap into this enthusiasm. It should rebalance its policies away from the greybeards and towards the young. There should be less focus on old people and established businesses, and more on young people and innovation. We should spend less money on farmers, and more on tech start-ups.

A rebalancing could help the EU address the fundamental challenges it faces today, which are:

  • its demographic deficit as its population slips
  • its declining economic importance in the world
  • its uniquely high social security

The Commission offers some history in its White Paper, harking back to early measures on social support in the 1900s. The EU’s GDP is 22% of current world GDP, but its social protection is almost double that of any other country in the world. The key question for the EU is how to sustain the European social model. We must find an equation that answers these questions, at the same time as dealing with climate change and migration.

There are other aspects to the White Paper that are worth mentioning. On economics, the Commission is on the right track: we will have to integrate economically more than we do now. Taxation, education and culture should be addressed.

But events have overtaken the Commission. Plodding along would have been a safe bet earlier this year, and the White Paper may have offered a holding position. But now we should be asking national governments to take a more assertive role when it comes to the EU.

That is why Mr Macron’s emergence is so importance. And why we should celebrate the amazing symbolism of him coming out to greet the crowds after his election victory to the sound of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the EU anthem. Mr Macron challenged the consensus and won his bet in overturning the establishment.

Of course, before we get too excited about Mr Macron, we need to remind ourselves that he is not the first French President who has called for reform, and neither of his two immediate predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy or François Hollande, could put their main ideas into practice. There will be sacrifices, and Mr Macron is not a Midas, for whom everything he touches turns to gold. But he has fresh ideas, a new approach and appreciates the gravity of the situation.

As for the EU, the first thing it needs to do is to dig itself out of the hole it is in. A first start has been made, but I suspect that if Mr Juncker had to re-write his paper today, it would be very different. The world is changing at such a rhythm and pace that we can’t just sit on our laurels. Mr Macron has boosted Europe’s confidence, and I hope that leaders will seize their chance.

David Harley is a Senior Advisor to Burson-Marsteller, joining in 2010. Before that, he spent 35 years in the European Parliament, including as official spokesman, Director of Media, Secretary-General of the Party of European Socialists, and European Parliament Deputy Secretary-General.


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