Bold Macron, cautious Merkel

Given a long rope, you can either hang yourself or climb and conquer. French President Emmanuel Macron is too optimistic and smart to hang or be hanged. Macron, who portrays himself as Emperor and Jupiter, aims to scale the summit of the European Mount Olympus. But, that is difficult because he is roped in by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Initially, the Merkel-Macron tango promised a new dawn of reforms to make the European Union (EU) “crises proof”. Now, the night promises to be dark and long. Macron pushes reforms (social, migration, defence and economic) as the antibiotic to kill the viruses of populism, xenophobia, financial crisis, euro-skepticism, anti-establishment anger and illiberalism that have rocked the bloc’s stability and values. Macron argues eloquently, “In front of authoritarianism that surrounds us everywhere, the answer is not authoritarian democracy, but the authority of democracy. In these difficult times, European democracy is our best chance.”

 If implemented, Macron’s Reformation 2.0 to rejuvenate economies and end the “civil war of ideas” could puncture Europe’s far-right parties. “I plan on ruining his lunch”, boasted the most famous British right-wing Brexiteer Nigel Farage before joining Macron. But, maverick Macron was mesmerising. Post-lunch, Farage purred, “Having listened to him, he is probably EU’s last chance.”

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Between the best and the last chance lies a vast contentious arena where competing interests complicate change. All EU members agree on reforms, but wrangle with conflicting “what’s in it for me” mentalities. Macron proposes a common EU budget, finance minister and a European Monetary Fund (a regional IMF) for the Eurozone (only 19 of the 27 EU countries adopted the Euro). This could better handle future financial crisis, as experienced by Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain.

Good idea, members concur. The Fund can bail us out, say southern countries like Italy and Spain, burdened by failing banks and sovereign debt. No way, say the northern Dutch and German neighbours: the fund will impose financial discipline, so you do not slip into crisis again. Stereotyping is embedded in this cultural gulf. Southern Europeans view the northerners of the cold climes as mirthless, nose to the grindstone, thrifty and austere Protestants. The northerners see the southerners living in sunny warmth as talkative, eyes to the skies, lazy, spendthrift, and good time Catholics.

Last year, Merkel said she could “imagine” Macron’s proposals taking shape. But now, election losses and her conservative base rein her imagination and Macron’s high hopes. Also, the pro-Macron Social Democrats, SPD, that joined Merkel’s coalition, backpedals. Establishing continuity with his hawkish predecessor, the new SPD finance minister Olaf Scholz says, “A German finance minister is a German finance minister, regardless of his party.”

Still, both Merkel and Macron vow to rebuild Europe with reforms to be announced at the EU’s June summit. Merkel-Macron’s recent tango in Berlin suggests that instead of a racy synchronisation towards reform with kicks, gravity-defying lifts and dramatic drops, we may see small-stepped advances, bereft of tempo and temperature, theatre and twirls, moderate in movement and momentum—a la Saudi Ardah sword dance.

Germany wields the sword in the EU, and draws some red lines regarding reforms. For instance, their taxes will not subsidise squandering southerners. Macron, who faces street protests against his own labour reforms back home, counters grandly: “I don’t see red lines. I only see horizons.” Sounds expansive, but not if you are standing at the bottom of Mount Olympus. Philippe Lamberts, member of the European Parliament, gifted Macron a coil of thick mountain-climbing rope, wisecracking that he will need it to reach his lofty ambitions. Jupiter could certainly do with a sturdy, long rope.

Pratap is an author and journalist.