by Frank Schnittger
Mon May 15th, 2017 at 09:39:23 PM EST
Far be it for me to write a diary on French politics when there are French bloggers here far more qualified than I to do so. But the election of Macron as President, and now his appointment of a conservative as prime Minister are events of EU wide significance. He has been welcomed with open arms by Chancellor Merkel, and has disabused those who thought he might favour Eurobonds or more radical measures to counter the imbalances within the Eurozone.
So is he just a French version of Tony Blair, come 20 years later? Certainly his abandonment of the Socialist party, his creation of a new centrist En March party, his embrace of liberal democratic market led reformist policies, and now his appointment of a conservative prime Minister are reminiscent of Tony Blair's "third way" policies of the 1990's and early 2000's.
But what made Tony Blair so deeply unpopular in left wing circles was not just his penchant for liberalising markets and privatising public services, but his poodle like craving for approval from establishment figures like the Queen and US President George W. Bush, and eventually his total complicity in the establishment of a false Casus Belli for war with Iraq.
It seems unlikely that Macron will repeat those mistakes, at least not quite so obviously, but will he repeat Hollande's mistake of advocating reasonably progressive policies and then folding abjectly in the face of German opposition? He must know that the European project is on borrowed time, and even the united opposition to the hard right English nationalist forces behind Brexit can only do so much to cover up glaring deficiencies in the EU and Eurozone itself.
The Eurozone, in particular, cannot go on from crisis to crisis in Greece and Italy caused by structural imbalances in the balance of trade between Germany and Club Med states. The hard right undermining of democratic norms in eastern Europe can only be ignored or down played for so long. The European parliament cannot live for ever on it's few conspicuous successes such as the near elimination of roaming charges.
The success of the EU in maintaining relative peace and prosperity for the last 60 years cannot be taken for granted and has been given a new lease of recognition in the wake of Brexit. But what forward looking vision is the EU going to embrace in the wake of the departure of its most recalcitrant member?
The nationalist backlash in much of the EU is in part a reaction against a seemingly unaccountable Brussels bureaucracy taking decisions not to the liking of local elites. But that has always been something of a red herring: EU decisions are made by consensus, usually unanimously, and rarely against the opposition of individual governments. National elites like to blame Brussels for measures they have themselves either actively or passively supported.
Brexit has demonstrated that this is no longer a low risk way of deflecting opposition onto a larger bogeyman elsewhere. There can be real consequences if the rubes take these blame games too seriously. But there are also real reasons why the European project in general no longer commands the affection and respect it once did: Chief among these have been the failure to deal with structural imbalances within the Eurozone, the imposition of austerity on already impoverished populations, and the failure to deliver any major new additional benefits of membership in recent years.
If the EU had been an outstanding success in weathering the storms of the post 2007 financial crash, in coming to the aid of beleaguered member states, or in dealing with the refugee crisis, far fewer citizens would be questioning its leadership and institutions now. It's all very well looking competent when compared to Trump or May, but really, that is too low a bar to set: the EU needs to set out a positive vision of where it seeks to be in 10 years time, and what it proposes to do to realise that vision.
Would it be too much to ask that in that time the EU could develop common educational, training, child protection, healthcare, procurement, public administration, social welfare, employment rights, equality norms, foreign policy, security and civil defence, sustainable energy, transport, environmental conservation, and infrastructural entitlements, policies, facilities and services which individual member states could opt in to or out of if they so choose?
Much of what is currently done by each national government is no different or very little different from what other national member state governments do in these areas. By pooling research capabilities, experience of best practice, quality of service measurement and administrative tools each member state could aspire to be the best in any or all of these areas providing real, visible, and sometimes measurable benefits to the citizenry at large.
Individual member states could opt to lead, participate, or opt out of participation in each policy area to avoid a need for unanimity slowing progress to a snail's pace. Agreement on the scope of each initiative - on what should be common to all, and what is best left to local initiative to fashion in accordance with unique or diverse circumstances would be key to avoiding over-standardisation of policies or services.
Above all over-centralisation in Brussels should be avoided. Peer-to-peer decision making processes, perhaps led by a different lead member state in each area would ensure than any such initiatives remain grounded in the real needs of real citizens on the ground. Thus Denmark might lead the Sustainable energy policy area, whilst France led language training and mutual recognition of qualifications. Each project would create a series of online administrative tools and computer systems which other countries could adopt and adapt to their particular circumstances within agreed guidelines.
The focus of such projects should be to assist mobility between member states of workers and pensioners by enabling transferability of health benefits, pension payments, tax administration, car insurance, qualifications recognition, and residency rights etc. Economies of scale would enable better tools to be developed and administered at reduced per capita cost. A best practice developed primarily in one country could be quickly expanded to include all who opted in.
No doubt there will be many controversial areas where either vested interests or genuinely unique circumstances prevent some or many countries opting in to a particular policy area. It will be partly down to the skill of the lead member state in developing processes acceptable and useful to many others.
However one thing seems certain: the EU can no longer rest on past glories and must add value to the daily lives of its citizens in many areas, and on an ongoing basis. Such processes cannot be entirely led by a centralised bureaucracy and should seek to leverage the enthusiasm, energy, experience and expertise within member states.
In some ways, the experience of participating in such projects will have its own rewards: ensuring greater mutual understanding of what is proposed, better design and development, greater identification with its success, and greater pride in its achievement.
The EU badly needs to achieve an ongoing stream of at least minor successes which can make a real (and sometimes measurable) improvement in the quality of life of its citizens. It must seek to involve as many local, regional and national players in this process as possible in order to avoid bottlenecks in a centralised bureaucracy and a lack of identification with a project in member states. Participation must remain voluntary at a national level to avoid accusations of a Stalinist centralism taking hold of the Union.
Above all, an over-arching initiative must be launched to breath new life into an ageing Union, and this cannot come from Brussels alone. It's time to let lose the energy in our regions, our younger people and in our current centres of expertise. HQ doesn't always know best, and modern theories of organisational design emphasise the importance of local centres with relative autonomy and freedom to innovate. It doesn't have to be ideologically driven, although it can be.
If Macron and Merkel are looking to breath new life into the EU, they must first place their trust in centres of expertise outside their own narrow dirigiste and "énarque" led administrations. An EU of 27 Members states must tap into the energies and experiences of all if it is to grow organically and develop into a major force for good for their own citizens, and for the world at large.