Merkel-Macron

Try Harder, Go Faster, Do More

French President Emmanuel Macron arrives with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to attend a Franco-German joint cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris
Close and canny: Europe's new power couple carry the hopes of EU advocates everywhere with them. Source: Reuters

Presidents come and go but the chancellor stays: That’s the way things have been going for 12 years between France and Germany. After Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, the man who moved into the Elysee Palace in May is Angela Merkel’s fourth interlocutor in Paris.

Changes of government in Paris have become more or less routine for the German leader, so to speak. But this time around, something’s different: Emmanuel Macron is the first French head of state since the turn of the millennium who hasn’t made the European Union the scapegoat for the economic and political malaise in his country. Mr. Macron embraces the EU instead of maligning it. He won two major elections with this strategy — the presidential and the parliamentary — unceremoniously sweeping the established parties out of his way.

That’s why a lot of Europeans have pinned more political hope on the new Franco-German couple than they did with previous constellations. And there is another critical factor coming into play: The Europeans feel threatened from the outside. The influx of refugees, autocratic leaders like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin in Russia, wars at Europe’s outer edges, a less friendly US president and regular terrorist attacks are all triggering existential fears thought to be a thing of the past in this part of the world.

It became clear all of a sudden that peace and prosperity, democracy and the rule of law are not to be taken for granted. It is also clear that we need shrewd leaders who have the will and ability to guarantee us free, secure and good lives in the future.

Berlin primarily wants to curb debt; Paris, in contrast, wants to spur growth above all.

So now all eyes are on Mr. Macron and Ms. Merkel. The two can still hold off until the German parliamentary election this fall, perhaps even until the Italian general elections at the beginning of next year. But at the latest then, the leaders of the two largest EU member countries will have to actively take the fortunes of the 28-nation bloc in hand. One issue, in particular, brooks no delay: illegal immigration. At the moment, geographical location is the main factor deciding who bears the brunt of the migrant crisis. Boatloads of African refugees are Italy’s problem and it is left alone to cope with them. The rest of the EU makes empty promises, looks the other way and/or closes its borders. Such a high degree of selfishness can drive even the staunchest Italian EU supporter into the arms of Eurosceptic parties.

Nothing endangers Europe’s cohesion more than the unresolved refugee crisis. The bloc must somehow find a common ground that balances the interests of the north and the south, and of its eastern and western member states. This is most likely the single greatest challenge facing Ms. Merkel and Mr. Macron in coming years. They will also need to take more decisive action than ever before to address the mostly economic causes of northwards African migration. Development aid is not enough. Instead, the EU needs to open up its market to the south, in order to give North Africa, at least, a real opportunity for growth.

Stemming the wave of migration alone is a monumental task, but that’s far from being the only item on the French-German to-do list. An EU defense union — a project of historic significance as well — is another item. In addition, the completion of the unfinished monetary union is long overdue.

The German chancellor already attempted taking steps in this direction with Mr. Macron’s predecessors, Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande, but to no avail. Opinions in the two capitals were too far apart. In principle, that’s still the case today. Berlin primarily wants to curb debt; Paris, in contrast, wants to spur growth above all. Ms. Merkel and Mr. Macron will have to bridge the gulf between these two extremes.

They will only succeed if the two of them tweak adjustments in their national economic policies. Previous French presidents swore to high heaven they would bring back France’s public deficit ratio to below the EU’s key limit of 3 percent — but they failed to deliver. Mr. Macron must now finally keep that promise in order to win back Berlin’s trust in Paris’s fiscal policy. For its part, the next German government should not just talk about investing but actually spend that cash. Residential construction and the education system come to mind as areas in dire need of public investment. Or the German state could dedicate more resources to integrating foreigners too.

However, the major European issues were merely touched on in the first Franco-German joint cabinet meeting under Macron-Merkel leadership on Thursday in Paris. Instead, both sides flogged the dead horse of corporate tax harmonization. Many civil servants on both sides of the Rhine have already been toiling on this topic for ages. This is not enough. Ms. Merkel and Mr. Macron will have to make a much greater effort if they want to leave their mark on history.

To reach the author: berschens@handelsblatt.com.

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