If measured in popular appeal, Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Germany this week was a big success. In the ancient city of Aachen, he charmed the crowds, stood for selfies and signed autographs. He met with students at the university and held court with some of Germany’s most prominent artists and intellectuals.
Mr. Macron had come to the old capital of the Holy Roman Empire to accept the Charlemagne Prize, awarded for work in service of European unification. He is the second French president, after Francois Mitterand, to be granted the prestigious award.
But Mr. Macron wanted more than to bask in his own popularity. He came across the Rhine on a political mission, determined to reinvigorate the European project, and to push and cajole Angela Merkel into joining him in taking action.
Compared to his soaring rhetoric, she fell a little flat.
In Germany, Mr. Macron fills a role which no German politician wants to play – a political visionary on a continental scale, offering a dream of a stronger, revitalized Europe, capable of defending its values and its place in the world.
He played his role with gusto. His acceptance speech was an impassioned plea for a self-confident, unified continent: the kind of speech rarely heard in Germany, where politics is generally conducted in a more low-key, pragmatic tone.
The French president called for a resolute defense of principles. “On the question of democracy, we should not give an inch,” he said: “We must be unafraid, and not betray our basic values.”
For the most part, Mr. Macron did not name the outside threats he saw endangering the European project. But everyone knew who he was talking about. Donald Trump, who wants to impose tariffs on European goods and abandon international cooperation on nuclear proliferation and climate change. Vladimir Putin, seeking to undermine European democracies with propaganda and hacker attacks. And China’s president. Xi Jinping, who sees Europe’s indecisiveness as an opportunity to increase his country’s power and influence.
Above all, Mr. Macron urged his fellow Europeans to take action quickly. “The Charlemagne Prize doesn’t mean much if we continue to wait,” he said. After the speech, he outlined four principles for Europe: decisiveness not weakness; unity not division, audacity not fear, and action not delay.
Mr. Macron real audience was sitting just a few feet away from him on the prize-giving podium: the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. If the French president is to make progress in revitalizing the European Union, he needs the German government to enthusiastically join his efforts.
So far, his success has been limited. And on the evidence of Ms. Merkel’s response in Aachen, it may continue to be. In her speech, the German chancellor cut a familiar figure: down-to-earth, unemotional and a little boring. If she was aware that Mr. Macron was yearning for a German answer to his French vision, she gave little sign of it tonight.
“Together with France, we are convinced that Europe needs a new start,” she said. Compared to Mr. Macron’s soaring rhetoric, this fell a little flat. “We need concrete answers to the big questions,” she added, giving no concrete answers to the big questions raised by her French counterpart. By June there might, possibly, be “progress on banking union,” she offered. Not quite the vision thing.
Only on foreign policy did Ms. Merkel seem to rise to the occasion. In a dangerous world, a common European foreign policy was an “existential necessity,” she said. Europe could no longer rely on American protection: it “must take its fate into its own hands.” Mr. Macron would agree, but wants action to back up those words.
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