No need for any more conferences: Emmanuel Macron is the future of Europe.
With his decisive electoral victory over right-wing challenger Marine Le Pen on Sunday, Macron not only clinched five more years as president of France but also secured his place — for better or worse — at the center of EU decision-making through 2027, and likely for many years beyond.
When he completes his second, and final, term, in the spring of that year, he will still be seven months shy of his 50th birthday. An encore in a top job in the EU institutions is hardly out of the question.
But even as Brussels and most capitals across the Continent breathed a sigh of relief at Le Pen’s defeat, officials and diplomats on Monday began to contemplate the ramifications of an EU universe in which France’s self-proclaimed Jupiter genuinely dwarfs all other aspiring political stars — and can pursue his ambitious, integrationist agenda for Europe largely unconstrained by French domestic politics.
In an EU still dominated, if not fully controlled, by the Franco-German dyad, Macron is now positioned to claim the mantle of the recently retired German chancellor, Angela Merkel. But whether he achieves his lofty goals — which include deeper economic integration, greater independence from the U.S. on defense policy, and transnational candidate lists in European elections — will hinge on his ability to convince and cajole fellow leaders to follow his lead, to forge consensus and broker concrete deals, rather than merely agitate and argue.
“The key for Europe is finding common ground,” one senior national official who has spent many hours and late nights in the corridors of the European Council’s Europa building said, laying out the challenge now facing Macron. “Not minimum agreement, that was Merkel’s legacy. Expand the space we all consider to be in the European interest. This is what should be the goal.”
In other words, to make his mark Macron must do more than manage crises, reactively, by finding the lowest common denominator, and instead steer his colleagues on the European Council toward proactive policymaking that will demonstrate the EU’s usefulness to citizens.
A first test will come in just a month, at an extraordinary European Council, where the heads of state and government will wrestle once again with how to address soaring energy prices — a spike exacerbated by Russia’s war on Ukraine.
“The best he can do now is go into the May 30-31 summit and get a deal done in support of European consumers,” the senior official said. “If he delivers this, given German coalition impotence, there’s a lot more he can do if he is pragmatic and reasonable.”
Outsized French voice
Among the obstacles Macron may face in the years ahead is collective resistance to a sense of French hegemony. He is already viewed as the national leader most responsible for the appointment of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and he is known to be extremely close with the Francophone European Council President Charles Michel. France, after Brexit, is also the EU’s sole permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and its sole nuclear power, giving Paris an outsized voice in diplomatic discussions.
One Paris-based EU diplomat said it was a marvel to watch France assert its interests: first, a French official complains about some policy problem or another; a paper shortly follows, and then the paper is turned into a policy proposal, which, within a few months, is more or less adopted in EU regulation. “It’s the country I know with the biggest gap between how effective it can be in Brussels and the perception of its citizens that Europe is not French enough,” the diplomat said.
Brussels, at the moment, is already perceived as extremely French, and Macron’s victory, however welcome, only confirms that perception.
Among the challenges that Macron and other EU leaders will face in the months and years ahead is dealing with Russia’s war in Ukraine. On that front, Macron’s legacy of conciliatory outreach to Vladimir Putin, and his failure to help implement the Minsk peace accords, will leave some leaders dubious about letting him steer the EU’s approach.
In seeking to become a deal-broker among power-brokers on economic and other policy issues, Macron will also have to contend with more seasoned counterparts, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who earlier this month won his fifth term, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is now serving in his fourth government. Neither will be particularly impressed that Macron has become the first French president to be reelected since Jacques Chirac in 2002.
“He has certainly made his second and last election, but he will not be able to catch up with Orbán,” said a senior EU diplomat. “Then he has to create a government after the June [National] Assembly elections.”
The senior diplomat said there was fair reason to hope that Macron would rise to the Europe-wide role. “Of course we hope he will become the European statesman,” the senior diplomat said. “It would be good for all of us. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt for now.”
But in Brussels, the relief over Macron’s defeat of Le Pen is tempered by the right-wing candidate’s strong showing and fear that Macron will not move quickly enough to create space for a mainstream successor.
The French president is not exactly known for sharing the limelight, and his success in largely obliterating the traditional center-right and center-left parties in France has created a risk that his two-term presidency, like Barack Obama’s in the U.S., will be followed by the election of an anti-immigrant Euroskeptic with little allegiance to NATO or the EU.
A diplomat from Southern Europe pointed out that, in five years, Le Pen “stands a great chance as Macron destroyed both the Socialists and Les Républicains.”
To avoid Le Pen or a similar extremist winning in 2027, the southern diplomat said: “We would need a strong centrist candidate.” That is one reason Brussels will be watching closely for Macron’s choice of prime minister.
Macron so far has found only moderate success in pushing his EU agenda. Ideas such as the creation of transnational candidate lists were brushed aside by other leaders ahead of the 2019 European Parliament election. Macron pushed for the creation of the Conference on the Future of Europe, a series of discussions that would explore various ways that the EU might evolve and better serve citizens. Whether anything concrete will come of the conference remains to be seen.
Some said Brussels should savor Macron’s victory before starting to fret about the future of either Europe or of France.
Nathalie Loiseau, a centrist French member of the European Parliament and ally of Macron, said she had encountered “a huge relief of all Europeans who have bombarded us with messages during the campaign and bombard us again now to express their joy. It is very impressive.”
Macron’s reelection, Loiseau said, means that “we will finalize what has already advanced on digital issues, and defense. We will accelerate the pace on the Green Deal and we will continue to intensify things on Ukraine through sanctions and military aid. And we will prepare a meeting on the Balkans, which is especially important as the region is going through intense tensions.”
Macron’s spotty record in the EU arena, however, will also create pressure for him to tone down the rhetoric and dial up specifics, especially on topics like “strategic autonomy” — the goal of making Europe more independent on defense and security matters.
It’s not that ideas like strategic autonomy lack “merit or substance,” a third EU diplomat said, but that in Paris there’s “a failure to understand the EU is no heavily centralized republic.”
In other words, Brussels is not Paris, the EU is not France. “So unless Macron shows understanding and humility towards those that think differently,” the diplomat said. it will be difficult for Macron to realize his aspirations. “France,” the third diplomat stressed, “needs partners.”
Maïa de La Baume contributed reporting.