Analysis | La boîte de pandore: Macron’s multispeed misgivings

Joseph Bebel

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) and French President Emmanuel Macron (right) speak at a European Council meeting on June 23, 2017. (Image: European Council on Flickr)

Prior to the recent French parliamentary elections on June 19, many commentators predicted that French President Emmanuel Macron and his party, La République en Marche (now Renaissance), would retain their parliamentary majority in the National Assembly. Yet, by the time polls closed, it became clear that not only had Renaissance lost numerous seats, but Macron’s ruling majority had also slipped through his fingers. While Renaissance’s 245 seats represent the largest bloc in France’s lower house, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s coalition of Socialists, Greens, and Communists, known as the New Popular Ecological and Social Union, won 131 parliamentary seats — representing the largest opposition group in the National Assembly — and Marine Le Pen’s far-right party won 89 seats, a historic record for National Rally. Without a clear majority, the French president will struggle to cobble together the necessary votes for his reform agenda. As French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire put it, “We are facing a democratic shock.”

Macron celebrated re-election in April 2022 after defeating Le Pen in the second-round presidential runoff, with the French leader winning almost 60 percent of the vote. Afterward, many considered the electoral victory a further blessing of Macron’s pro-business agenda. Nevertheless, many of Renaissance’s lost seats were wrested away by parties that oppose significant aspects of Macron’s approach. Indeed, rather than reinforcing Macron’s future vision for France and Europe, the parliamentary results stand as a stern rebuke of his domestic reforms and European plans — including his most recent proposal for a so-called “European Political Community” (EPC).

The EPC is a framework for E.U. members and democratic non-E.U. countries to discuss possible areas of cooperation without waiting for official accession — specifically referring to immediate integration prospects for Ukraine and Moldova. (Both received E.U. candidate status on June 23.) For example, both states could cooperate relatively soon with the European Union regarding energy security and economic assistance while still working through the official accession process. The EPC could also enable some member states to move ahead in certain policy areas, such as defense and energy, without other members. According to some European leaders, the requirement of unanimity has held back reforms necessary for strengthening the bloc. They argue that more “deeply integrated” members of the Schengen Area and Eurozone should be allowed to move forward with these critical reforms.

The French president’s community idea has been presented as a wholly novel concept. Yet, the EPC is similar to the “multispeed” Europe concept that first emerged after the Brexit referendum. In March 2017, the European Commission released a white paper detailing several potential scenarios for the European Union’s future vision — among them the approach of “Those Who Want More Do More.” The Commission presented the scenario as a means for current E.U. members to deepen integration with fellow members that had the appetite to do so. Along with then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Macron supported the Commission’s idea: “We should imagine a Europe of several formats: going further with those who want to advance, while not being held back by states which want” to impede further progress. At the time, France and Germany began building a coalition of supportive member states, including Austria, Italy, and Spain.

However, among newer member states from the post-Soviet bloc, concerns rose that the multispeed arrangement would formalize a perceived imbalance between peripheral and core member states. And similar to that notion, the European Political Community could serve as a proverbial wrecking ball, almost certainly fracturing the bloc in the long term rather than driving deeper integration and solidifying cooperation across the continent.

Progress over unity?

The EPC’s detractors point out, first and foremost, that the policy concept has been short on details. In fact, the draft text of the French proposal still asks in key areas, “What, who, why?” Second, official E.U. candidate states and other countries aspiring to join the union have warned that the EPC must not be an alternative to official membership. In his initial reaction to the European Political Community proposal, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba remarked, “No alternative to [official] EU membership for Ukraine would be acceptable.”

Central and Eastern European (CEE) member states have also expressed concern that the EPC could be a Trojan horse for re-introducing the multispeed concept for European integration. For example, prior to the March 2017 E.U. anniversary summit, then-Law and Justice party leader Jarosław Kaczyński — considered the de-facto leader of Poland — lamented that the approach would formally relegate some states to an “inferior category of members.” After the European Council meeting that same month, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared that any arrangement that normalizes “first-class [and] second-class” member states would lead to the ultimate demise of the 27-member bloc. While Hungary and Poland have been most vocal in their opposition, other nations in Central and Eastern Europe also have their reservations — as demonstrated by broad regional support for the joint statement “Strong Europe — Union of Action and Trust,” issued by the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia in June 2017.

In response to these concerns, Macron presented his “new” idea to the European Parliament when France still held the E.U. presidency in May 2022. In a speech closing the Conference on the Future of Europe on May 9, Macron acknowledged growing concerns over the multispeed arrangement, but he further argued that “never allowing the more sceptical or hesitant among us to slow down this pace” of European integration is necessary for the overall “effectiveness and ambition” of the European project. Macron has rationalized the community approach as necessary for “stabilising the European continent.”

Today, Macron’s EPC proposal has re-awakened fears of formalizing a tiered system within the European Union, now that Western officials have recently advocated to move ahead on some policies without certain members. For example, in response to Hungary’s opposition to a minimum global corporate tax rate, German and French officials have recommended triggering the “enhanced cooperation” mechanism to implement the policy without the unanimity normally required for such legislation. Likewise, although CEE states for years warned of the geopolitical risks of the Nord Stream II pipeline, German and other Western officials did not finally concede until Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Even so, they begrudgingly halted the project, knowing that shutting it down would exacerbate the continent’s already tenuous energy security prospects.

On the one hand, the democratic backsliding occurring in some member states, such as Hungary and Poland, is a true threat to E.U. unity, and those states must certainly be held to the main tenets of the E.U. treaties. Yet on the other hand, efforts by Paris, and commonly Berlin, to steamroll smaller members to support their self-serving agendas also present an existential crisis to the union. Domestically, Macron has been heavily criticized for his inability to work with opposition figures, opting instead to rule unilaterally. In the wider European context, referred to by some continental leaders not so affectionately as “little Napoleon,” Macron’s overtures for a new approach to European integration completely disregard — and disrespect — the interests of many member states, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe.

While the EPC, or multispeed, approach would not guarantee the fracturing of the European bloc, it would exacerbate growing imbalances within the European Union. France and Germany have long been the most powerful member states. However, while still an E.U. member, the United Kingdom, in concert with many CEE members, provided a strong counterbalance against French and German influence. Now, since Brexit, power dynamics within the European Union have increasingly tipped toward the core member states. This shift must be monitored closely: further imbalance could push some CEE states away from Brussels and the West, thus hurting future continental cohesion.

Hearkening back to the European Commission’s 2017 white paper, perhaps the approach of “Doing Less More Efficiently” would solidify current levels of E.U. integration. Brussels should continue to use the rule of law mechanism to bring Hungary and Poland in line with the E.U. treaties. Additionally, E.U. officials should revisit the accession criteria to allow candidate states, such as Ukraine and Moldova, to receive increased funding and support for jump-starting integration throughout the membership process. Since the EPC model risks seriously alienating some member states, E.U. leaders should strive to reach a consensus that advances, rather than detracts from, the union’s proclaimed goal of “unity in diversity.”

Joseph Bebel is the editor-in-chief of the Eurasia Daily Monitor and senior program associate for Europe and Eurasia at The Jamestown Foundation. He is a former Huntington Graduate Fellow with the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and has completed work for the American Enterprise Institute, Freedom House, and European Horizons, among others.

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