The speech was in complete contrast to the nationalist, isolationist discourse advanced on both sides of the Atlantic by politicians who are appealing to the lowest common denominators of skepticism, fear and hate. In particular, it was a coherent and positive alternative to the incoherent and out of sorts Brexiteer types, wherever they are. Macron’s two-hour speech was a very eloquent reply to those who want to climb the political ladder by driving a wedge between communities in a desperate act to win votes. Macron challenged these merchants of doom and gloom who are trying to drag Europe back to an era defined by war and civil strife. In the current domestic and international atmosphere, where cynicism rules supreme, it takes a brave leader to speak out about the power of ideas and the desire to keep alive the notion that fraternity is stronger than retribution in forming the European dream, as was set out at the end of World War II.
The timing of Macron’s speech, two days after the German elections, made it even more fitting. The success of the populist radical-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in entering the Bundestag, the German parliament, as the third biggest party with an astonishing 12.6 percent of the vote, was a striking contrast to Macron’s wish for an even closer-knit EU. Macron not only chose his words carefully but also choreographed the entire event to match his message. His chosen venue — one of the most prestigious universities in the world, the Sorbonne — surrounded by young people, backgrounded by EU flags and those of its member states, was no coincidence. Universities are hubs of new ideas and innovation, and the vision that Macron delivered aimed to provide young people with hope and new prospects of being Europeans who live in a globalized world but simultaneously embrace diversity as a source of strength, not division.
The speech was also not short on soundbites, such as “I don't have red lines, only horizons.” However, to concentrate on the choreography and the soundbites would do a disservice to this genuine attempt by the French president to tackle the challenges that Europe and the rest of the international community are facing. Rightly, he concentrated on the themes of sovereignty, democracy and union as the pillars of a future EU. He did so without avoiding the deeply interwoven challenges the continent is facing: of security, migration, and job creation, as well as the issues of climate change and the digital revolution.
Macron convincingly argued that only a strong and united Europe can defend its values as they have evolved over the centuries. The European version of a market economy with a strong sense of social justice and human rights, he said, “cannot be found anywhere else on the planet.” This is a coded criticism of the direction being taken by countries such as the US, Russia, China and Turkey, and even within the EU by Hungary and Poland — countries that have adopted free market economies but are run by populist-nationalist leaders.
French president’s vision of EU’s future challenges the merchants of doom and gloom on both sides of the Atlantic who are trying to drag Europe back to an era defined by war and civil strife.
Macron was well aware that had he only presented lofty ideas without tangible policies, he would have been mauled by his political rivals and the right-wing press. Hence he set out a fairly clear set of priorities for Europe’s future, even if they are still in their nascent stages. His top priority for the EU is to deal with the union’s fragile security situation that derives from the gradual US disengagement and from terrorism. To ensure long-term security, he suggested accelerating security cooperation to address the lack of a common strategic culture, including the formation of a European rapid response force by 2020. The challenge of refugees doesn’t mean to him relinquishing our responsibility towards those who suffer most from war and oppression, but a common asylum policy. But helping those who need protection is only part of the picture; to address the challenge of immigration, Europe needs a complex approach, which must include genuine integration policies and comprehensive assistance for the countries where immigration originates.
Macron envisages a Europe that is in the forefront of innovation and a leader in the digital age, one that develops European universities and has a European carbon tax. For this, it needs better coordinated economic policies and an improved common budget.
Macron’s speech was more evolutionary than revolutionary, but his suggestion, for instance, that there should be pan-European lists for the 2019 European parliamentary elections is radical and makes perfect sense. It would epitomize that the demarcation of European debate should not be along national borders, but along values and ideas that we should discuss and debate as Europeans. He might find that in many parts of Europe the winds are blowing in the other direction, but this should not deter him or those who support his vision, because the alternative is one of hopelessness and despair that will bring only strife to Europe. The French president’s vision harbors a belief in the ability of human beings to work for the greater common good, not for parochial interests.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg