The EU, where all politics is local
Yesterday, former French president François Hollande addressed a student conference at Harvard’s Kennedy School and then met with faculty and students to discuss European and trans-Atlantic politics (in the picture accompanying this post, I’m seated to Hollande’s left and former Greek finance minister George Alogoskoufis, who chaired the session, is to his right). I asked Hollande about German CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s reply to Emmanuel Macron’s proposal for European reform. His response was in essence that it was going to be very difficult to get Franco-German agreement on social and economic issues and that the only promising area for increased cooperation in the near term was border security and defense.
This is probably correct, but it’s also a confession that Europe currently finds itself in a very depressing conjuncture. Kramp-Karrenbauer’s (AKK) response to Macron concisely summarizes the enduring differences between France and Germany on what Europe should look like. Macron called for a “European renaissance.” In reply, AKK rejected what she called “European centralism.” In short, France sees, and has always seen, Europe in its own image, and Germany does the same. Hence in German eyes, Macron’s calls for harmonized minimum wages and social security systems are non-starters. Centralized debt, which Macron did not even mention this time around, remains such anathema to German conservatives that AKK rejected it again anyway.
It’s significant, of course, that the reply to Macron came not from Chancellor Merkel but from the woman she is grooming to be her successor. As party leader, AKK needs to quell dissension within her ranks. She did not win the leadership contest by much, and her chief rival represented the party’s right wing, which feels that Merkel moved too far to the center. To appease the right wing, which dismisses Macron as a showboat whose lofty pro-EU rhetoric masks a scheme to promote French power in Europe at German expense, AKK chose to include a number of anti-French proposals in her response. She wants France to give up its UN Security Council seat, which would become a European seat instead, and she also calls for abolishing the Strasbourg seat of the European Parliament, created as a sop to French sensibilities.
Of course, both Macron and AKK are launching their campaigns for the European Parliament. Even in the EU–especially in the EU–all politics is local. And local politics is conducted in different terms in Berlin in Paris. In Germany, both parties to the Grand Coalition, the SPD and the CDU/CSU, feel that they have suffered from their convergence toward the center and are seeking to reassert their identities. AKK has chosen to do so by trumpeting the eternal German verities: no to centralized Europe, yes to an intergovernmental Europe of independent states and strict rules. The concrete changes she demands are French sacrifices. Whereas Macron’s “progressive centrist renaissance” emphasizes abstractions like “harmonization” and “cooperation” and the creation of new administrative departments staffed by professionals steeped in the ideal of “the general interest”–that is, a mirror image of l’administration française, at least as it understands itself.
In short, the Franco-German couple continues to squabble. But what couple that has survived for six decades can say it has never squabbled? The problem is that the interests of the now numerous children and grandchildren also have to be accommodated. François Hollande expressed his belief that the Germans–meaning, I think, mainly Mrs. Merkel–now recognized the need for change, but this was already a very French view in its assumption that France had always been cognizant of a need of which Germany had only recently become aware. The European election campaign thus begins on a note of depressing continuity at a moment which calls for turning in a new direction.