It was a moment to cherish, not to spoil. But I wasn’t the only one at the grand Charlemagne prize ceremony for Emmanuel Macron in Aix-la-Chapelle last week to wonder if the French President has already accepted that the federalist game is up. The medal is awarded for services to the cause of European unification, a cause that Macron has done his best to advance. But first the Brits bailed out. Then the Hungarians and Poles dissented. Now Italy looks set to become the first of the EU’s six founding states with a government abandoning the federalist project.
Angela Merkel and her German conservatives had poured cold water on Macron’s idea of a massive shake-up involving a single finance minister for the eurozone. And Italy has handed the final blow to Macron’s plan. A coalition between the Five Star Movement and the Lega looks set to flaunt all the rules of European orthodoxy — and lay the idea of euro federalism to rest.
Lega and the Five Star both want to rip up EU rules on the budget deficit. Just as Germany and Italy are about to clash on fiscal policy, there will be a feud over migration policy. Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio are more Prada than blackshirts, but they want to close the border for new arrivals. They have nothing but disdain for the idea, touted in Brussels and Berlin in the past years, that refugees in the Italian camps can be allocated to other countries according to an EU formula. And Lega in particular sides with Hungary, Poland and a few others that no government should be punished through the EU budget for ignoring the ‘diktats of Brussels’ or for flouting the rule of law. Macron’s hope for a Europe-wide position on refugees is now in tatters.
So we can expect him to change tack. He isn’t doctrinaire and has already started to wear his federalism lightly: in Aix-la-Chapelle, he spoke about ‘the promise of Europe’ in 2050 rather than now. If Merkel is (or was) the anchor of political stability, Macron is at heart a disrupter who wants to upset the status quo. Pundits routinely portray him as a centrist énarque, after L’École Nationale d’Administration, an establishmentarian who cut his teeth as a government advisor and at Rothschild’s Paris desk for big corporate transactions. But more important than anything else, Macron spent his formative academic youth assisting his mentor, Paul Ricoeur, whose tracts in phenomenology are good starting points for understanding the symbols of populism and identity politics. Macron sees himself as representing the new politics, not as a defender of the old guard.
He has a good rapport not just with Donald Trump but European leaders like Viktor Orban who are guided by the spirit of post-modern illiberalism. He doesn’t share their ideology, but can do business with them in a way that Europe’s centrists have been unable to. Macron may even inspire some of them: he stands behind the toughest reforms of migration and assimilation policy that France has seen for a long time, and he has been surprisingly untroubled by the accusations that his policy on law and order is borderline fascist. Moreover, Macron draws the support of populists in Italy and Austria who want stronger social protectionism in Europe — amid concern about immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria accepting low-paid jobs.
Together with Spain, Italy was supposed to be Macron’s key ally in his quest for fiscal federalism and a full banking union. But the Spanish government has bigger battles to fight at home, and Italy seems only weeks away from having a government that will be treated as an outcast — or, perhaps, a sign of the new normal. The European weather has changed. And it’s quite likely that Macron, the discordant political entrepreneur, will change with it.