Sunday, 7 May 2017

Today the dark clouds over Europe parted. Let's fix the roof while the sun is shining.

President Macron represents an opportunity for Europe to save itself. Will it be squandered like so many opportunities before?

When Emmanuel Macron took to the stage tonight for his enormous victory rally outside the Louvre in Paris, he did so with Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' playing in the background. It was a truly shocking moment, because it is a tune that Europe's national leaders have been running away from for 12 years.

The Ode to Joy is the EU's unofficial anthem - unofficial because its official status was removed from the proposed European constitution after French voters rejected it in 2005. It is still played before sessions of the European Parliament nonetheless. But for national leaders, Beethoven's rousing melody has represented nothing but a headache.

For France's new president, it represents an opportunity.

The enthusiastically pro-EU centrist candidate Macron has handily defeated far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen - a woman who had promised to dismantle the EU. Brussels, and national capitals across Europe, are tonight breathing a sigh of relief.

With the 2017 French election, Europe found itself at a crossroads with two incredibly different paths before it. A win for Le Pen would have meant the end of the European Union and the start of a dark chapter of nationalist retreat in Europe. A win for Macron may very well mean the opposite - a renewal of the European project which can the EU out of its 10-year funk.

Over the past year, the Brexit referendum and Trump election brought dark storm clouds which have hung over Brussels. The mood here has been grim. People were feeling depressed and hopeless. Legislation ground to a standstill. Everyone was waiting with a sense of dread for what the French election would bring. They knew that in an instant, their entire world could crumble on 7 May.

But it didn't. The French proved less susceptible to the siren song of nationalism than their Anglo-American counterparts. They elected a man who has not been afraid to talk extensively about the EU during the campaign - a man who has said that deeper European integration can help solve some of Europe's endemic problems. And they rejected a woman who said the solutions to Europe's problems is dissolving the European Union.

Macron's victory follows the defeat of far-right leader Geert Wilders in the Netherlands in March. It also comes before a German election in September which will almost certainly either maintain centre-right Angela Merkel in power or elect the centre-left former president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, to be chancellor. If it is the latter, the pairing of Schulz and Macron will mean there is strong pro-EU leadership in both of the central countries for the first time in recent memory.

A real period of transformation and renewal may be about to begin. The excitement in the air here in Brussels is palpable tonight. The storm clouds have cleared. 
But the fact that Le Pen scored 34% of the French vote today is still worrying - as is the 25% abstention rate. People know that though the clouds have cleared, it may only be temporary. So what does Europe do with this moment of sunshine?

Real EU reform is now possible

The last time Europe saw the sun was at the dawn of the new millenium, when the introduction of the euro had gone off without a hitch and the EU seemed to be in a period of endless possibilities. The EU expanded to the East, taking on 12 new countries - nearly doubling the size of the union. The excitement led to the constitutional convention of 2001 to 2003, which developed the European constitution.

But national leaders did little to involve citizens in this convention. Indeed, the vast majority of citizens were unaware of its existence. The constitution came up with ideas to solve some of the EU's governance problems - including partially addressing its democratic deficit. But few would call it an ambitious document. 

When the constitution was rejected by French and Dutch referendum voters in 2005, national leaders were not willing to expend political capital trying to revive it. They avoided the subject of Europe at all costs. A few years later they passed the Lisbon Treatyapproximating the reforms of the constitution while dropping the symbols of confederation, almost in secret.

Clearly there was a problem with public perception of the EU. But times were still good, and nobody wanted to stir up trouble. When sun was shining, it would have been the perfect time to fix the EU's roof of public acceptance. But the EU's leaders preferred to sit back and sunbathe. When the clouds came with the constitutional crisis of 2005 and the banking crisis of 2008, it was too late. Fixing the EU's roof in the rain has proven difficult.

Macron wants to give it another go. He has promised to start a series of dialogues across Europe in the Autumn, after the German election in September. He is the first elected European leader in 15 years to speak openly and positively about the EU - and to embrace a path to real reform rather than window-dressing.

Although he doesn't want to use the word, Macron's description of the Autumn dialogue sounds much like the first steps to the constitutional convention that took place in 15 years ago. But this time it could be a real convention, one that involves the citizens and embraces ambitious, bold reform of the EU's governing structures. These could be reforms that enable the EU to move swiftly and decisively when the next crisis hits.

Macron has signalled he is more than ready to work with Merkel on these reforms, but he knows that it will be more difficult with the notoriously cautious (and only tepidly pro-EU) German chancellor. If the more fervently pro-EU Schulz is elected in September, these 'dialogues' could take place within a very interesting dynamic. It could be the impetus for real change in the EU, and the implementation of the solutions envisioned in the five paths paper put out by the European Commission in March.

In short, it could be the start of a real federal Europe for the core EU countries - and perhaps a 'two-speed Europe' where outer countries have a looser relationship. 

It could be a completion of the European project which was left only halfway done. In my view, it was this unfinished state that left the EU exposed in the eurozone and migration crises experienced over the past ten years. This is the subject of my soon-to-be-published book, 'Europe's lost decade' (release currently scheduled for October). The Macron election offers Europe the chance to finish what it started.

Renewed hope

For me, this isn't just political. It's personal.

Two years ago, in November 2015, I wrote a blog entry which got a lot of attention called 'For the first time, I'm considering leaving Europe'

I recounted the reasons why I left the United States and moved to Europe in 2006, full of curiosity and hope about the European Union. Obviously, there have been disappointments over the past ten years here. By 2015 I was feeling crisis'd out. I began questioning my plan to stay in Europe the rest of my life. I was questioning whether Europe was really able to address these chronic problems. Maybe it was time to go back home to America.

Then came 2016.

First came Brexit, something I strongly suspected would happen the moment David Cameron called the referendum. This was based on my time living in the UK and knowing the incredible lack of knowledge of what the EU is among all segments of British society.

Despite my suspicions, it didn't make the result seem any less scary, and depressing. 

And so as the year went on, and it seemed likely that Hillary Clinton would be elected president in the US, I began to think that perhaps it was the right time to move back home. It seemed like the EU was going to be stuck in, at best, years of naval-gazing and, at worst, a drawn-out collapse. The US government, while still archaic and full of problems, at least seemed stable by comparison.

Then came Trump. That for me really was a shock. And it made me understand that I can never move back to the United States.

And so I awaited the result of the French election with great trepidation. The election of Le Pen would have meant the eradication of my world. I felt that if she won, I would have to leave Europe - because there would be nothing left here to believe in.

So tonight I am feeling a huge sense of relief. Not just relief - excitement. 

This could be a huge turning point for Europe. Free of the shackles of the UK, holding the European project back, the remaining EU27 may be able to rejuvenate this union under the leadership of Macron.

I feel a weight off my shoulders. This past year has made me feel like there was nothing I could believe in, that the world was irrevocably sliding into darkness. France has today rekindled my hope for the world.

There is still much reason for caution. As The Economist noted last week, Brussels shouldn't react to this news with complacency. There is still much trouble brewing in the EU's East, and the Italian election which must be called within the next year could prove to be fundamentally destabilising. The success of Le Pen in this election shows there is a huge disaffected part of society in Europe now, and they do not believe that the EU, or that liberal democracy in general, has the solutions for them.

So let's not interpret today's result as a sign that we can relax, and everything is about to go back to normal. Normal is not an option any more. In order for things to stay the same, everything has to change. 

Now is the time for the renewal that Macron has promised. Now is the time to fix what is broken in the European project.

Now is the time for a constitutional convention.

1 comment:

argos said...

Macron hat das Jahrhundert-Projekt gerettet. Ein große Persönlichkeit und Staatsmann.
Er wird sich durchsetzen und wir werden wieder glückliche Europäer sein.