March 2018

By Étienne Bodard

“2018 will be a decisive year for Europe.”

This was the bold pronouncement made by French President Emmanuel Macron, who used his first New Year Eve speech to outline his strategy for Europe in advance of European elections in 2019.

Macron clearly has 2019 in his sights, partly due to the fact that the European election results will be taken into account for the appointment of the next President of the European Commission and the 26 EU commissioners. These positions are particularly important because the European Commission has the “right of initiative” to propose and draft new bills. The Commission could, in theory, support Macron’s proposals for Europe or, on the contrary, block them. In 2014, for the first time, the leader of the largest political party was automatically appointed as President of the Commission. The European Parliament is pushing to keep this appointment method but President Macron is seeking allies among other EU leaders to change it and facilitate the accession of his preferred candidate to the EC presidency.

Behind these institutional debates, it is the future of Europe which is at stake.

Macron’s Vision for Europe

In September 2017, President Macron unveiled his ambition to rebuild a “sovereign, united and democratic Europe” at his major address at La Sorbonne, in which he presented a detailed 10-year roadmap plan. Delivered at just the moment when German Chancellor Angela Merkel – Europe’s undisputed leader so far – was in a difficult domestic position following Germany’s Federal elections, Macron has sought to position himself as Europe’s leading agenda setter in the post-Brexit era.

Macron’s underlying premise is clear: Europe is the only and right answer for European citizens facing global and contemporary challenges – such as climate change, digital transition, terrorism, and social and tax dumping. And yet at the same time, this vision is threatened by a growing wave of anti-EU ideas illustrated by rising nationalism, protectionism, and isolationism. To address this paradox head-on, Macron’s hopes to bring Europe closer to its citizens, to involve them in the construction of the European project, and to call for a “multi-speed” Europe, allowing some member states to move ahead of others in some areas.

To paraphrase Macron’s words, stand up for Europe and rebuild Europe.

To succeed, President Macron will have to challenge the two-party system in the European Parliament, navigate smoothly, and find allies among other EU leaders – as he will not be able to impose his views only by himself. In this respect, he has Germany's Social Democratic Party to thank, which approved on March 4 the renewal of its coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel, a key Macron ally.

However, whereas the political crisis in Germany is now fixed, it’s now Italy that is facing political instability following its recent general elections results. This instability, the defeat of former social-democrat Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (potential Macron ally), and the emerging populist and hard-right majority will render Macron’s challenge even more difficult.

Macron’s EU Strategy

To disrupt the European political game, one of Macron’s major proposals was to reallocate some of the UK’s 73 MEPs seats freed up by Brexit to instead serve on so-called “transnational” electoral lists (common lists of candidates who are able to run for election across the whole EU territory, rather than at their own national level) for the 2019 European elections. This maneuver would have encouraged European citizens not to vote for national candidates or based on national considerations, in turn strengthening the very concept of EU citizenship and a European dimension to the elections. This was Macron’s symbolic response to Brexit.

Such a pan-European list would have been a perfect Trojan horse for Macron to influence the choice of the next President of the European Commission, which is one of Macron’s key objectives to solidifying his EU vision; the President could have been chosen among the candidates elected on this pan-European list rather than by political parties, as the EU’s current “Spitzenkandidat process” requires.*

While his maneuver ultimately failed, President Macron made it clear that he will keep fighting for the transnational list system to be adopted for the 2024 European elections. Indeed, only a few weeks after this defeat, Macron and his counterparts questioned the Spitzenkandidat process itself. This then opened the door to a third way forward, which offer a significant opportunity for Macron; rather than choose the next President of the European Commission from among the largest political group at the Parliament, instead choosing him or her from among the largest coalition, made up of several political groups.

This approach would enable Macron to create new political alliances and, ultimately, facilitate the accession of his preferred candidate to the EC presidency. This is a key strategy of Macron’s to shore up support from the European Commission presidency for his vision to rebuild Europe and back the implementation of his 10-year agenda.

Ultimately, Macron’s potential alliances across the EU will depend on the results of the 2019 European elections, which will also serve as his first national political test (akin to U.S. midterm elections) since his 2017 French presidential victory. One option will be for Macron to create his own new political group at the European Parliament with the support of other EU leaders, including such moderate MEPs as those from the ALDE (center), EPP (conservative), and S&D (social-democrats) political groups.

However, knowing that a political group must gather at least 25 MEPs coming from at least seven different EU member states, creating a new political group would then require support from other political leaders Europe. It will be a significant challenge for Macron as not everyone shares Macron’s vision and ambition for Europe.

A second option would be for Macron to join one of the existing political groups and work towards building a broader alliance.

Next Steps

On the sidelines of his first speech in front of the European Parliament on April 17, President Macron will officially launch the first public consultation citizen process aiming at eliciting views on the European project and breathing new life into Europe. These consultations will be organized on an ongoing basis and up until the 2019 European elections in all EU Member States, except for Hungary, which has refused to take part.

In parallel, the French Parliament will soon adopt a reform of the country’s national electoral law (reducing the electorate from eight regional constituencies to one single national constituency). This will effectively put Macron’s En Marche party in a strengthened position ahead of the 2019 European elections.

If it is today still unclear which political option Macron will choose, it now appears that he is building a step-by-step plan to disrupt the EU political landscape, solidify his claim to leadership of the union, and implement his 10-year reform agenda.

It’s a difficult and audacious bet. Reactions to Macron's upcoming address at the European Parliament on April 17 will provide a new window for scrutiny for what could happen politically in Europe in 15 months.

* The Spitzenkandidat (or "lead"candidate) system, used for the first time in 2014, is a process in which each major political group in the European Parliament appoints its candidate for the position of President of the European Commission prior to the Parliamentary elections. The Spitzenkandidat process is binding for the European Member States. Indeed, the EU Chief of States or Government are forced to automatically appoint to the Presidency of the European Commission the Spitzenkandidate of the largest political group following elections.