by Clemens Lukitsch
The French president Emmanuel Macron gets a lot of commendation these days. Liberals, conservatives and social democrats all praise the charismatic politician – but for different reasons.
Be it his policies to liberalize the domestic labour market, his plans for social reforms in the monetary union, the immersion of the EU integration or if nothing else, his rhetoric prowess and his ability to stage performances like he did in Athens or his “Initiative for Europe”-speech at the Sorbonne University (famous philosopher Juergen Habermas devoted an article to Macron’s rhetoric talent).
Certainly it can be stated that Macron has achieved the feat of revitalising the public discussion on the future of the EU. In particular the big issue that remains unresolved is the reform of the monetary union and whether how and if further integration is desirable or not. Alas, as praiseworthy that may be in the perspective of many EU-enthusiasts, debates on migration and refugees still seem to be paramount – especially in Germany. Short-term memory indicates that the so-called migration crisis in the years of 2015/2016 (it should be noted that for South European member states like Italy it has been an on-going crisis for well over 20 years now) fuelled the rise of fringe parties like the “Alternative for Germany (AfD)”.
If we take a small step back and view the founding momentum of this far right-wing movement we would have to conclude that it were the ramifications of the euro crisis and in particular the violation of the no bail-out clause of the Lisbon treaty that sparked the rise of the AfD in Germany. What followed for years was a public debate on debt and liability in all political arenas. In Germany a majority of broadcasting networks, large media outlets and newspapers unanimously criticised southerners (alternatively Italians, Spanish, Portuguese and in particular Greeks) for the poor contestability of their domestic economies and primarily their public debt. Furthermore pension claims and wage levels were deemed as too high and as (economically and morally) indecent by the German government and the public opinion leaders. Objecting arguments in this debate were sparsely to be found.
One of course could have pointed out macroeconomic imbalances in the Eurozone caused by German dumping wages or Germany’s continuous trade surpluses, further deepening economic divergence between members of the Eurozone and thus obstructing recovery in the single market during the crisis. But these (empirically thoroughly grounded) arguments had no and still have little place in the Zeitgeist of the debate.
Despite the devastating financial crisis in 2008, the consequential euro crisis and the omnipresent looming threat of the next big crash; Germany’s biggest media outlets still preach conformity to the requirements of international financial markets, fiscal discipline and above all the relentless mantra-like emphasis on economic competitiveness. And although Germany went through the crisis relatively unharmed – Germans kept asking: “Crisis? What crisis?” – the central questions on shared liability, stability and sustainable growth in the European economy still remain unanswered.
After Macron came forth and manhandled these topics back on the top of the agenda the praise on the conservative and liberal side remains, as long as he keeps pursuing his “Agenda-2010” like policies within France. What differentiates Macron from his liberal (and most of his conservative) fans is his proposal to implement fiscal policies in the EU and the Eurozone: European minimum wages and an ample Eurozone Budget for example. Also his plans for security and defence policies in Europe (ideas favoured by the conservatives) could open one or more backdoors for financial compensation between member states that cannot be outright brand marked as illegitimate transfer payments.
Many public intellectuals on the centre-left therefor pin their hopes on Macron as European saviour who has the momentum on his side to give the European integration a new and critical push and conciliate the diverging societal and political forces within the EU (one such voice is the political scientist Ulrike Guérot).
Unfortunately again Germany or to be more precisely German voters seem to have little interest in more shared liability or social reforms in Europe. The outcome of the federal elections from September 24th 2017 is accordingly: the conservatives, the liberals and the far-right AfD together gained 56 per cent of the votes. The hefty voter-shift from the conservatives and social democrats to the AfD, as well as the formidable re-entering of the liberal party (FDP) in the German parliament can be easily explained with subtle euroscepticism among Germans. It is not surprising as the notion among the public prevails that they have to pay for everything and everyone, get no or little solidarity in return (as it was seemingly the case during the migration crisis) and are furthermore expected to compensate for the lacking financial prudence of indebted countries.
Christian Lindner (leader of the Free Democratic Party – FDP) heavily benefited by identifying this sentiment and further exploiting it by conducting an anti-solidarity discourse in the pre-election period. During a speech on a political rally he compared the idea of Macron’s Eurozone Budget to a “Cash-pipeline” for permanent transfer payments from Germany to indebted receiver countries; a verbal image, so poisonous, leading AfD-speaker Alexander Gauland probably choked back his anger over not coming up with it himself. Also, all surveys indicate that the Free Democratic party is held in high esteem among AfD voters.
The reckless austerity politics of Wolfgang Schaeuble and Angela Merkel during the euro crisis gave rise to fringe parties of all kind in the EU: the Five Star Movement in Italy (where they have a fair chance of winning the elections in March 2018), Podemos in Spain, the Marxist Left Bloc in the Portuguese Government and of course Syriza and the neo-Nazi party Chrysi Avgi in Greece. Staggeringly enough the public opinion in Germany did not link the ascent of these movements to the harmful policies of the conservatives and that they would eventually further European disintegration and inflict lasting damage to the European project.
Therefore a left progressive alliance and policies relying on expansive fiscal measures, investing in infrastructure, bolstering demand by raising domestic wages and seeking further coordination of social policies on the level of the monetary union as the way to sort out the mess of the euro crisis and revitalise faith and trust in the EU never had any realistic chance of gaining wide support among German voters.
The so-called immigration crisis further increased scepticism and exposed the current inability and reluctance of the EU to cooperate and show solidarity; again Germany playing an inglorious role during the course of it.
As it stands Emmanuel Macron is waiting for Germany to build a new government. But however the outcome: any coalition without the social democrats (which would have to involve the FDP) would never agree to Macrons fiscal and social plans for the EU. A remake of a battered grand coalition – what seems to be the likeliest option at the moment – between the conservatives and what is left of the social democrats could at least give Macron some time to actually see some of his proposals for the Eurozone and the EU implemented. He will be in dire need of succeeding in wresting monetary and fiscal concessions from Germany. Otherwise National Front leader Marie Le Pen will (rightly) accuse him of having failed like Francois Hollande before him in doing so.
In Germany the right-wing AfD and the Free Democrats both effectively styled themselves as harsh critics of the coalition between Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the social democrats. If a newly forged grand coalition decides to embrace Macrons social initiatives for Europe and thus to make compromises that will be perceived as unpalatable by many voters at home, the AfD and FDP will seize every opportunity to further milk euro-sceptic sentiments among a weary German population – and their chances of success are all but slim.
Clemens Lukitsch is a student of economic and political science. In the past he has worked as columnist and editor for The European Magazine. In Summer 2017 together with a friend he launched the political podcast Grautoene: http://www.grautoene.net/