Why it remains worthwhile to listen to the embattled French president, Emmanuel Macron—and why not.
Ach Europa! (‘Oh Europe!’) exclaimed Hans Magnus Enzensberger—in the title of a 1987 book by the German writer and poet, who died in December—after visiting seven European countries, north and south, west and east. In his search for an entity called ‘Europe’, he found only fragments of highly diverse linguistic cultures and seemingly incompatible national idiosyncrasies.
Referring to the mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot, Enzensberger concluded: ‘Europe is a fractal object … of irreducible diversity.’ And yet, through the exclamation mark, he let us know that, even if European unity were a chimera, this ‘chaos’ was its most important resource: ‘We live off difference.’
Ach, Europa—with a considered comma rather than an exclamation—sounded more sceptical from Jürgen Habermas as his 2008 book title, although, in fact, it was meant as a patriotic appeal, wir brauchen Europa! (‘we need Europe!’). It morphed into Ach, Europa! for a 2020 volume by intellectuals from the social-democratic SPD seeking to encourage those who despaired of a ‘European Union capable of acting’ (as Peter Glotz put it). This came though with the warning (from Jürgen Kocka) that recourse to a ‘common European culture as the demarcation between Europe and non-Europe’ no longer sufficed: the ‘democratic ability to act’ had to be foregrounded.
Big question mark
Since the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, a big question mark has unfortunately had to be placed after Ach Europa. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, triggered outrage last month when, flying back from a meeting in Beijing with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, he said Taiwan was not Europe’s business—implying this would reduce it to being a ‘follower’ of the United States. Yet, in the face of this horrible war, nothing could be more urgent than to give his call for the continent to become a ‘third superpower’ clear content and realisable implementation.
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Discommoded Germans should recall that the often lukewarm, if not extremely sceptical, commitment to the European Union of successive German governments—not to mention the Federal Constitutional Court—did not encourage a broad public discourse on Europe’s sovereignty. On the contrary: in the decades before the Zeitenwende (‘changed times’) declared by the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, days after the invasion, government and opposition circles liked to exploit populist horror stories of the ‘bureaucratic juggernaut’ in Brussels or of ‘social tourism’ threatened by a ‘transfer union’.
Nor should we forget the arrogant misjudgements of leading German politicians. In 2001, for instance, in a conversation with Lothar Späth (rehearsed in the 2020 collection above) the former chancellor Helmut Schmidt lectured: ‘No political or economic danger emanates from the Soviet Union, from Russia today in the foreseeable future … We Europeans need a positive Russia policy. We are partly prevented from doing that today because the Americans have not yet understood it.’
Take a closer look at Macron’s ‘Initiative for Europe’ speech at the Sorbonne University in Paris in September 2017. He began with a not unrealistic assessment.
Up to now, Macron declared, Europe had been protected in two ways: on the one hand, in terms of security policy, by the US (via the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and, on the other, domestically, from populist passions, such as nationalism or isolationism. This protection had however become brittle or disappeared.
Even if it is unimaginable to stand up successfully to the Russian invasion without the US and NATO, which has regained strength, the planned integration of Ukraine and its sustainable reconstruction will not succeed without a sovereign Europe. Without an EU capable of acting, right-wing populism will continue to spread and Europe must also be armed against corresponding tendencies across the Atlantic—possibly including the return of Donald Trump to power. That is before one gets to the global challenges of climate change, violence, people movement and digital transformation, which no state can shoulder alone.
‘Keys to sovereignty’
Macron spoke in 2017 of ‘six keys to sovereignty’:
- security, not only in terms of military policy, but also vis-à-vis ‘terrorism’ and cyber-security;
- guaranteeing this sovereignty with secure borders and control of migration;
- an active foreign policy, particularly a strategic partnership with Africa;
- a sustainable energy and industrial policy, including an environmentally conscious ‘food security Europe’;
- digital sovereignty, including a ‘European agency for radically novel innovations’, and
- fiscal sovereignty to establish and guarantee European ‘economic, industrial and monetary power’.
For the most part, Macron’s vision of a sovereign Europe by no means corresponded to the disparaging comment by the German ‘headmaster’ Schmidt—that ‘anyone who has visions belongs in hospital’. On the contrary, he elaborated concrete proposals for all his ‘keys’ to sovereignty, especially fiscal: this was to include ‘a stronger budget within Europe, at the heart of the eurozone … to be placed under the strong political guidance of a common minister and be subject to strict parliamentary control at European level’.
Macron also explicitly included the social dimension, speaking of a ‘genuine social convergence’ and ‘gradual approximation of the social models’. Education played a special role for him:
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Europe must be a place where all students can speak at least two European languages … In 2024, half of students in each age group should have spent at least six months in another European country by the time they are 25, whether they are university students or learning a trade … I believe we should create European universities—a network of universities across Europe.
In short, the Bologna process (of mutual recognition of tertiary qualifications) should be followed by a ‘Sorbonne process’, taking in secondary schools and vocational training.
At the end, however, Macron came back to European reality: the French and Dutch rejections in referenda in 2005 of the European draft constitution had brought a ‘glacial period’, in which no one dared to advocate reforms implying treaty change. Yet Macron had the courage to say: ‘The German taboo is financial transfers; the French taboo is treaty change. Ultimately, if we want Europe, both will happen.’
And dramatic subsequent developments—the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine—have meant some of Macron’s dreams have been at least partially realised. To name just a few: the Europe-wide short-time working programme (SURE) to maintain employment during the pandemic, the envisaging of more concrete schemes for European unemployment reinsurance, the Recovery and Resilience Facility and the minimum-wages directive. Meanwhile, 11 sanctions packages have been adopted against Russia, allied to Europe-wide military support for Ukraine and solidarity towards its refugees.
We remain however miles away from implementing some of Macron’s key proposals. Again, a few examples: a European Defence Community, apart from modest approaches; a common asylum and immigration policy, though urgently needed for humanitarian reasons and to cover the shortage of skilled workers; a ‘strategic partnership with Africa’, not remotely recognisable. On the contrary, the Eurocentric fight against the pandemic meant undersupply of vaccines in Africa, European interest-rate policy has had indirectly catastrophic effects on heavily indebted African states and trade deals have been suggested that would further encourage African states (such as Senegal) to invest in non-renewable energy (gas) or resource exploitation (rare minerals, natural fertilisers).
All of this has not only led to a deepening of the alienation between Africa and Europe—reflected, for example, in the reluctance of many African states to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It has even strengthened to some extent the influence of Russia in Africa, not to mention China.
Yet Macron’s idea of ‘European sovereignty’ should be viewed critically in two respects: economic and social equality remained largely a blindspot in his Sorbonne speech, while talk of a European ‘superpower’ does not create trust among strategically important international partners. Without strengthening the ‘sovereignty’ of all Europeans citizens in enjoying the undoubtedly great achievements of the European single market, political support for foreign-policy sovereignty will dwindle. And without stronger international solidarity, dreams of Europe as a global power will nourish or reawaken anti-colonial feelings.
Apart from the challenge of gender inequality, inequality in Europe is expressed, for example, in high youth unemployment. Only ‘professional sovereignty’ allows young people not only to earn a decent living but also to bear a good part of the social burden of digital and green structural change. Many young people in Europe, especially in France, are denied this right to professional independence.
Unequal citizenship is also experienced by the increasing number of immigrant Europeans. In 2019, 23 million non-Europeans lived legally in the EU (5.1 per cent of the population), including 10 million with permanent residence rights. Their contribution to economic and social life became clear not least during the pandemic: 13 per cent of employees with ‘essential functions’ (from doctors to nurses and drivers) were migrants. Yet many are prevented from taking part in democratic elections. In the last Berlin elections for the House of Representatives, for example, 24 per cent of the population over the age of 18 were non-German and therefore not eligible to vote.
Without further massive immigration the shortage of skilled workers in Europe will not be solved, but without an institutionally secured Wilkommenskultur (‘hospitality’)—for example through simplified naturalisation—Europe will not become a popular destination for non-European skilled workers. The European Commission and the European Parliament have been trying for a long time to come up with a new, up-to-date directive to clarify the residence status of immigrants. The laborious discussions and negotiated compromises involved in the latest proposals however still reflect the sad fact that a large part of the population in many countries—including Germany—still sees ‘foreigners’ more as a burden than as an asset.
Macron’s vision of a ‘sovereign Europe’ at the Sorbonne remains relevant, albeit not in ‘third superpower’ language. At the time he was paraphrasing the ‘true’ identity of Europe in a manner tantamount to Enzensberger’s wistful exclamation ‘Oh Europe!’
A ‘sovereign Europe’ will not develop sustainably only with military strength, even if such power is unfortunately indispensable in today’s geopolitical situation. Instead, meeting the challenge of cultural diversity in Europe, based on tolerance and high-quality multilingual education for all, should be at the centre of such a sovereignty—a project certainly exciting for European youth.
Macron spoke of the enormous diversity of European languages, which has not so far been an obstacle to European unification. On the contrary, for him—as for Enzensberger—the key to European identity can be found in this linguistic chaos:
The European Sisyphus always has his untranslatable burden to roll up the hill. But this untranslatable burden is in fact an opportunity. It is the mysterious part inside each of us, and it is the part of us that trusts in the European project. It is the fact that at a given moment, despite not speaking the same language and having these unfamiliar and complex differences, we decide to move forward together instead of letting those things drive us apart …
Finally, the essence of the European project is democracy. I would even say that it is its greatest strength, what really fuels it.
It would be great if, instead of a further European pandemic, this enthusiasm were to ‘go viral’. Are we ready: Oh, Europe!?
A version of this article in German is available here