French President Emmanuel Macron’s reelection on April 24, 2022, was a critical victory for the European Union. As he delivered his acceptance speech to the sound of the EU anthem “Ode to Joy” and his supporters waved the EU flag, the stark contrast with his defeated challenger Marine Le Pen was on full display. While Le Pen campaigned on a Eurosceptic platform that would have ended the EU as we know it, Macron has long held a reputation as a proponent of further European integration.
Macron’s continued stewardship of France, therefore, offers favorable prospects for a strengthening of the EU over the next five years, especially given his new claim to predominance among EU leaders. Yet, to fully realize his ambitions for the bloc during his second term, Macron will need to take greater care to forge consensus across EU member states, rather than repeating his past tendency to act unilaterally.
THE MACRON METHOD
Macron’s pro-European credentials are unambiguous. Since the first days of his presidency, he has embraced the EU as the organizing principle of his political identity, calling for reforms to strengthen the bloc in the face of both internal and external dangers. Indeed, it is remarkable that Macron — who is often criticized for his political plasticity on domestic issues — has never once swayed from his unabashed Europhilia. Having found its purest expression in Macron’s 2017 speech at the Sorbonne, where he urged “the refoundation of a sovereign, united, and democratic Europe,” the French president’s vision for the future of the EU was once again at the center of this year’s campaign.
Given their justified fears of what a Le Pen presidency would mean for the union, it is no surprise that other EU leaders wholeheartedly backed Macron’s candidacy. In a highly unusual move, the leaders of Germany, Spain, and Portugal penned a joint op-ed in support of Macron ahead of the election, imploring French voters to choose the candidate “who believes that France is stronger in a powerful and autonomous European Union.” Following Macron’s victory, congratulations soon came pouring in from across the bloc, as EU leaders took comfort in having eluded the existential threat posed by Le Pen.
To fully realize his ambitions for the bloc during his second term, Macron will need to take greater care to forge consensus across EU member states, rather than repeating his past tendency to act unilaterally.
Macron’s reception from other capitals, however, is unlikely to be rainbows and butterflies. Having secured a second term, Macron has solidified France’s influential position in EU politics, with some analysts going so far as to proclaim his “undisputed leadership in Europe.” While Germany has typically occupied this role, former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s departure has left the country struggling to respond to key challenges under a new coalition government. Paradoxically, Macron will now need to take even greater care to coordinate with other member states, lest he is viewed as attempting to promote French interests in the EU rather than common ones.
In the past, the French president’s habit of acting unilaterally — a poor strategy for the union’s consensus-driven political process — has often strained his relationships with other EU leaders, undermining his ability to implement his agenda for European reform. Perhaps the most notable example of this tendency was the acrimony elicited by Macron’s calls for European “strategic autonomy.” For years, he clashed with Germany and Eastern European member states over the use of this term, which many took to imply decoupling from the United States and the transatlantic security community. While it has become clear that this is not Macron’s true intention, his communications — such as his explosive remarks about the “brain death of NATO” in 2019, prompted by his perception of a more uncertain US security guarantee under former President Donald Trump — have sometimes been less than tactful. This issue has become particularly sensitive in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has reinforced the importance of NATO’s collective defense for many EU countries.
Macron’s Russia policy, too, has suffered from a stubborn indifference to the views of other member states. In 2018, he began a bilateral dialogue with President Vladimir Putin based on his misguided assumption that Russia’s historical ties with France would lead to improved relations. Even though many EU countries sharply reproached Macron, he forged ahead with his desire to develop a “new European security order” that would include Russia. This engendered a sense of mistrust that eventually culminated in the humiliating rejection of his plans for an EU-Russia summit by Poland and the Baltic states in 2021. Now that their Russia-skeptic views have been clearly vindicated, Macron must demonstrate a greater willingness to take their security concerns seriously if he wishes to bring them on board for future EU initiatives.
Finally, Macron’s obstinate opposition to further EU enlargement has proven to be a significant point of contention. His surprise decision to unilaterally veto opening the accession process for North Macedonia in 2019 despite earlier promises to the contrary, citing the necessity of first reforming existing EU structures, drew the ire of leaders not only in the Western Balkans but across the union. Moreover, with the increasingly loud calls for Ukraine to begin the accession process following the Russian invasion, including a recent letter of support from the leaders of eight member states, the enlargement issue has once again risen to the top of the EU agenda. Given the supercharged political temperature surrounding the decision of whether or not to give Ukraine candidacy status, Macron must take care not to repeat his past mistake of deciding without consulting other member states beforehand.
CAN MACRON CHANGE?
It remains to be seen whether Macron will be able to turn over a new leaf in his second term and attain the necessary unity to turn his ambitions into reality at the EU level. While a pessimist might point to his personality, often criticized as aloof and arrogant, as evidence of a fatal inability to forge a more consensual approach, an optimist might note his improved track record in recent years. For instance, Macron played a leading role in getting other EU leaders on board to institute the momentous NextGenerationEU COVID-19 recovery fund in 2020. Described by some as the bloc’s Hamiltonian moment, this decision by member states to jointly authorize the EU to issue €750 billion in debt represented a significant step toward Macron’s objective of closer fiscal integration. Macron experienced another critical success at the European level this past March with the completion of the Strategic Compass, the union’s first-ever white paper on security and defense and a key priority for France’s current six-month presidency of the Council of the EU.
Whatever the future may hold, one thing is certain — Macron alone cannot transform the union, but whether or not he knows that is debatable.
Nick Lokker is a Research Assistant with the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.