Like any large family, the European Union doesn’t always agree. Its disparate characters include a pretentious cousin, a patient matriarch, and a fashion-conscious member who cannot be trusted with the credit card.
France, Germany, and Italy are joined by a range of other close and distant relatives under the same elegant roof trying live in a sprawling structure more like a maze than an open-plan house with easy access to its various facilities. The term often used for such conflicted families is dysfunctional. Some wonder if the EU even verges on dystopian.
The latest serious fracas erupted when German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a rare public rebuke to French President Emmanuel Macron as he moved to make fundamental changes to the EU – all on his own. The staid and steady German leader – who is 23 years older than the Frenchman and has been in power 12 years longer – gave a measured dressing down to Macron as she vowed strong support for two western Balkan nations in their efforts to begin negotiations to join the EU. It came after Macron vetoed their accession bid, and is now trying to make it tougher for the bloc to accept new members.
“I want to tell the states of the western Balkans that they too have a prospect for membership in the European Union. That’s what they should know from here from Zagreb,” Merkel said from the Croatian capital. “We will live up to that, we will make that happen.”
The rebuke came as Macron continues to issue loquacious pronouncements on a range of EU policies. In addition to blocking the start of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, he went against all his counterparts earlier this year in objecting to a long extension of the Brexit deadline.
Earlier this month he further angered his allies by calling for sweeping changes to Europe’s security forces, even questioning the collective defense clause at Nato, an important agreement seen widely as a success since WWII. Merkel’s comments came just days before her party’s convention in Germany and ahead of Nato’s anniversary summit in London. Long in power and hobbled a bit by the rise of populist movements in Germany, she is more now vulnerable, her de facto role as top European leader weakened.
With chinks showing in Merkel’s armour, Macron is trying to step into her role. Her political career is in its twilight, all agree, while Macron’s is just beginning. Yet those same observers openly wonder if Macron can stand the test of time and serve as leader of equally fractious France anywhere near as long as Merkel led Germany.
Another fundamental difference is that Merkel grew up in East Germany, spending her formative years under an autocratic Communist system. Her efforts likely reflect a deep commitment to empowerment of formerly oppressed people rather than simply vying for who has the highest-profile.
The most recent conflict stems from Macron’s veto last month that blocked EU plans to start membership negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. In a summit of EU leaders, the French president also argued that no date should be set for opening accession deliberations until the EU revamps its entire approach to accepting new member states.
“We must now talk with France, and we will do this very intensely, about which elements exactly will have to be improved or changed in the accession process,” Merkel told the press.
“We want an agreement about this as soon as possible so that we will be able to make progress in the concrete cases.”
The German position on prospects of EU-entry talks for the two nations is a bid to bolster geopolitical stability in the historically volatile Balkans. Merkel said last week that Western Balkan countries need to have a realistic accession horizon of possibilities.
And it isn’t only Merkel who is pushing back. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called the failed EU summit a “major historical error”. European Council president Donald Tusk, who chaired the meeting, counselled the Balkan nations to not to give up. “Both countries have the right to start EU negotiations,” Tusk said.
EU leaders are growing increasingly impatient with the imperious, seemingly unpredictable Macron, who not long ago went off the reservation with comments about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In an interview to The Economist, he said “we are currently experiencing the brain death of Nato.” On the same day, Merkel’s top diplomat countered with Germany’s ideas about reforming Nato, views very different from Macron’s radical ruminations. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas suggested a group of experts could offer advice on transatlantic security challenges. “We want above all to make clear that Nato functions and has a future,” said Maas.
Discussions on bolstering the organisation came after the US withdrew from northeastern Syria, giving Turkey a free hand. Macron was reportedly infuriated that neither country consulted Nato before acting.
There are bound to be disputes in any extended family, especially one as diverse as the EU.
The problem with Macron is that he seems all too ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
– Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are editors at www.luminosityitalia.com