WHEN France’s president speaks about Europe, his remarks are directed in part at Germany. Before his election in 2017 Emmanuel Macron went to great lengths to show Angela Merkel that he could be a credible partner. He lauded her leadership on refugees and Russia, took the fight to populists, and promised to tackle France’s economic rigidities, all wrapped in a European Union flag. The Elysée Treaty of 1963, the basis for Franco-German co-operation, would be given a fresh lick of paint. For years visitors to Berlin had grown familiar with weary complaints about unreformable France. Now the Germans seemed to have what they had long claimed to be waiting for. If Mr Macron had not come along, perhaps Germany would have had to invent him.
Mr Macron has always argued that his domestic plans cannot be isolated from his European ambitions. So this week, as transport strikes and university sit-ins roiled his country, he took his calls for EU reform to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. France’s Jupiterian president loves a good scrap, and it showed. Mr Macron sparred with MEPs from across the spectrum, passionately defending his decision to attack weapons sites in Syria, and reserving particular venom for a former ally of Marine Le Pen, the nationalist leader he bested last year. Mr Macron issued his customary battle-cry against illiberal populists and European naysayers—but also tried to dispel what seems to him to be a whiff of complacency. “We can’t carry on as if this is any old debate,” he said, adding that he did not want to belong “to a generation of sleepwalkers”. As he knows, the warnings in Christopher Clark’s book of the same name, which charts the diplomatic missteps that led to the first world war, resonate with Mrs Merkel.
Yet Berlin is slumbering. Hours after Mr Macron’s address, Mrs Merkel followed her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in resisting a beefing-up of the euro zone’s bail-out fund, one of several modest reform ideas to be discussed at an EU summit in June. Mr Macron had already scaled back his ambitions for the euro. But even the relatively easy projects are starting to look too difficult. “We are not the ones with our foot on the brakes,” insisted Mrs Merkel. But she seems too tired or weak to respond to Mr Macron’s initiatives. Her latest idea is that meetings of the euro zone’s finance ministers should occasionally take in economy ministers too. Mr Macron might be forgiven a dash of impatience. (The pair were due to meet in Berlin as we went to press.)
French hopes that Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), who have reluctantly rejoined Mrs Merkel in coalition, might soften hard hearts in the CDU look misguided, too. Olaf Scholz, the new SPD finance minister, has failed to purge his department’s upper ranks of staff installed by Wolfgang Schäuble, his flinty CDU predecessor. Some MPs grumbled after Mrs Merkel bowed to her party, but the SPD is more concerned to shore up its fragile support than to bolster Mr Macron’s European dreams. The European debate Mr Macron was supposed to kick-start is already bogged down in the sort of pettifogging technicalities he detests, on matters like the appropriate level of non-performing loans on the balance-sheets of euro-zone banks. Italy’s political mess, Poland’s inward turn and Spain’s Catalan distraction further thin the ranks of potential allies. The June summit, once hailed as a make-or-break moment, may yield little more than one of the EU’s endless “road maps”.
No matter, say Mr Macron’s aides. They will play the long game on the euro and look for momentum elsewhere. But the list looks thin. In Strasbourg the French president urged a resolution to the interminable intra-EU fights over how refugees should be redistributed the next time emergency hits. But this file has been blocked for years, and he appears to have no fresh ideas. Few Europeans have much interest in contributing to his proposed joint military-intervention force. And as the Syria strikes, co-ordinated with the United States and Britain, showed, for hard security matters the Elysée needs partners outside the EU.
March on, march on
Mr Macron has at least rallied support for his cause to build a “Europe that protects”. He has won a battle to equalise pay and benefits between native workers and those temporarily “posted” from other EU countries. The European Commission has taken up his call for a special tax on digital giants, although Germany remains sceptical about the details. It is warmer towards another Macron priority: a tough line on foreign governments, especially China’s, that encourage their firms to gobble up “strategic” industries in the EU while making life difficult for European investors.
Mr Macron’s other big idea is to run a series of “citizens’ consultations” to generate debate about the EU in the run-up to next year’s European elections. (After his Strasbourg address he went to a nearby town to lead a discussion among 300 voters.) Mr Macron has convinced other leaders to establish their own versions. But do not expect a revolutionary exercise in grassroots politics, for few of his counterparts share his appetite for disruption. That also explains why Mr Macron’s ambitions to shake up Europe’s institutions are floundering. His party, La République En Marche, remains aloof from the pan-European political groupings through which much EU business is conducted. If he hopes to make good on his promise to blow up party politics in Europe as he did in France, he needs to get a move on.
Traditionally Europe has reinvented itself under two sets of conditions: optimism (the creation of the euro, enlargement to the east), or panic (bail-out funds, refugee deals). A different sort of mood is abroad today, characterised by mutual mistrust, caution and fear that the next emergency is just around the corner. That is why France’s president finds an audience for his protective measures, but tumbleweed for the rest. This leaves the EU in limbo, ill-equipped to cope with the next crisis. That is precisely Mr Macron’s message. But it is not being heard.