For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Prof Simon Usherwood, from the Open University, in England. Bonjour, Simon!
Simon, what is your take on Emmanuel Macron’s speech to the European Parliament on Europe Day. Do you think he said anything useful?
This year, 9 May was not only the anniversary of Robert Schuman’s declaration in 1950 of a Coal and Steel Community, but it was also the day – and the prompt for the speech – of the conclusion of the year-long Conference on the Future of Europe. This has involved lots of public meetings and discussions with EU citizens to consider how to make the EU work better and has produced a long list of ideas that it has now passed on the governments of the EU’s member states to consider.
For Macron, the speech was both an acknowledgement of the Conference’s work, but also – obviously – an opportunity to start his second term as President with some big ideas for the future of Europe.
Europe? Or rather the European Union?
Well, Emmanuel Macron is never one to be short on ambition, so as well as the EU, he also proposed a new ‘European political community’ that could bring together other states in Europe with the EU, to allow them to work more closely.
That big idea is one that has been around for a long time in various forms, but recent events have potentially opened the door to finally making it happen.
Firstly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent urgent desire of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to become EU members has run up against the very demanding – and slow – process of membership negotiations: Macron talked of Ukraine needing decades to join.
As such, creating a space that formalises these countries’ ambition and maybe includes access to more cooperation without compromising membership requirements looks attractive, even if Eastern member states wanting speedy enlargement might disagree.
It also leaves the door open to any improved relationship with the UK. Despite more noises about Northern Ireland, Macron is keen to show that there is space for a more constructive and cooperative relationship, without forcing the UK to have to give up the sovereignty that it cares about so much.
A balance that might all be good for the EU’s neighbourhood, but what about the EU itself? Did Macron commit to those proposals you mentioned?
Here is where it gets a bit more difficult.
Macron sounded very keen to use the Conference’s ideas to drive forward a round of treaty change to allow for a more efficient and effective EU. That would mean some changes to decision-making – with more majority voting – and more areas of policy where the EU could act.
However, as he was speaking, seven member states – mostly in the East and North of the Union – put out a statement that seemed to firmly kill off any treaty negotiations. For them, the Conference was also only about generating some thoughts on changes around the edges of what the EU does.
Since you need all member states to agree to open treaty negotiations of the kind envisaged, this seems to leave Macron with some warm words but no realistic lines of action.
Indeed, it was striking that his speech was relatively light on substance, which suggests that he isn’t yet in a position to make a big mark on Europe, even with his new mandate and with his revitalisation of the relationship with Germany.
In short, Macron’s speech highlighted not only his deep personal interest in European integration, but also the challenges of moving the organisation forward. The shock of the invasion of Ukraine has done much to remind the members of the EU of the value of working together, but that doesn’t mean they now agree on much more than they did before.
Thank you very much, Simon, for this reality check on Macron’s vision. Quite some challenges ahead for both Macron and the EU!
Ideas on Europe will be back next week, and we will welcome Helen Drake, from the University of Loughborough, in the UK.
First published on eu!radio.