Last week Emmanuel Macron persuaded the editors of Europe’s serious newspapers in 28 member states to carry an article expressing his concerns about the future of Europe.
His overt message was a warning about the threat to the European project from growing nationalist sentiment among the voters in many member states.
His covert purpose was to try to re-start a pet political initiative of his own – to persuade the governments and peoples of the member states that the EU should take a giant step in political and economic integration which would result in its becoming a sovereign world power to rival China, the US and Russia.
This ambition, in turn, is centred on a desire that the EU should be dominated by an axis of power between Paris and Berlin. France and Germany would be sitting in the pilot and co-pilots seats of a sovereign super-power while the rest of the EU performs the roles of cabin staff and passengers.
The lamentable departure of the UK from the EU makes it possible for Macron to pursue this strategy. There were never going to be three pilots in the EU cockpit. The UK was not interested in transforming the EU into a political, economic and military super-power. But now that the British are heading off into isolation, Macron senses an opportunity to advance his agenda.
He thinks that by identifying the negative force of nationalism, as he sees it, he can build an alliance in favour of accelerated integration. By warning of possible disintegration, he thinks he can make a saleable case for a major leap in integration.
Keeping the EU roughly as it is can be portrayed as dangerous. By claiming that Hungary’s Viktor Orban is somehow taking the initiative, Macron can make the argument that “we” must seize back the initiative.
There is, of course, a huge problem with this “logic”. Most member states are opposed to the creation of a sovereign EU super-state. Most electorates in most member states simply do not share this ambition. There is no demand for a massive cession of sovereignty to the EU.
We should recall that it was the federalists’ demand for the re-statement of the “ever closer union” phrase from the Treaty of Rome in the Lisbon Treaty that created the political circumstances in which the formal right of secession was formulated as Article 50 of that treaty. If “ever closer union” had not been insisted on in the treaty text, there would probably never have been an Article 50 at all. And probably no Brexit either.
And the rise of political parties and movements in the EU member states which are described by Macron as negative nationalists might – just might - have something to do with a perception that the EU is pursuing an integrationist path that threatens to strip the voters of their power to control the extent to which their states’ sovereignty is ceded or eroded.
If, as is undoubtedly the case, immigration is an issue for those nationalist parties and a card which they can successfully play to win votes, can anyone even for a moment concede –even now and in retrospect – that Angela Merkel made a massive blunder in demanding that the member states should throw open its borders as a response to the Syrian refugee crisis?
Was it wise or proper to seek to use the EU as a means of forcing member states to share the burden of inward migration just because the Berlin government felt that way at that time? Have we forgotten the Brexiteers’ advertising hoardings showing the wave of migrants as a threatening horde?
My point is this – the EU belongs to the peoples of the sovereign member states. It is for them to determine the character and direction of the union. They do not want the federalist vision of a sovereign super-power in which each member state has the status and function of the individual states in the USA.
They do not want the EU, as such, becoming involved in armed conflicts in the Middle East or Africa. They do not want a European government. They do not want to trade their state sovereignty for a sovereign Europe. And they react against the pursuit of such goals at the ballot box.
Cast your minds back to Matteo Renzi, the Italian premier, who pledged the Italian presidency to the creation of a United States of Europe. What happened to him? He was swept aside by a tidal wave consisting in part of radical, right-wing euro-sceptics. His silly stunt of posing for the cameras with Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande on an aircraft carrier off the island of Ventotene was seen through. All three of them misjudged the moods of their electorates. All of them paid the price. Only Merkel is left and she is in the political departure lounge.
Who played into the hands of the AfD in Germany?
Who played into the hands of Salvini in Italy?
Who played into the hands of the Brexiteers in Britain?
Macron’s underlying agenda is simply not shared by the Netherlands, by the Scandinavians, by the Baltic states, by the Visegrad states, by the Austrians, by the Italians, the Greeks, the Cypriots, the Maltese, or the peoples of the Iberian peninsula. Or by the Irish.
It is easy – and partly correct -to blame Brexit on a number of factors from Cameron and the Tories to the British press and to delusions of post imperial grandeur.
But if we are honest with ourselves, we should ask why the British and the Danes asked for Article 50 to be put into the Lisbon treaty as a counterweight to the “ever closer union” restatement demanded by the federalists. They didn’t insist on Article 50 because they wanted to leave. They just wanted to underline the voluntary basis of EU membership and the preservation of the idea that the EU was a partnership of the willing.
It is perfectly respectable to be a pro-European who likes the EU as it is – a partnership of sovereign member states who have pooled their sovereignty for a limited and defined set of purposes – and to oppose the creation of a sovereign EU super-state or federation along the lines of the US.
Macron’s strategy is to conjure up a threat from negative reactionary forces and then to sell further integration as the antidote to disintegration. Does no-one ever ask exactly what are those reactionaries forces reacting against? Does it never occur to the enthusiastic integrationists that it is they who share the responsibility for the problems they are so anxious to confront?