The Hour of Europe?

The reelection of Emmanuel Macron on April 24 has profound implications for the future of Europe. Much of the coverage of the election has understandably focused on the significance of the election for France domestically and the future of French politics. But much less attention has been paid to the impact of Macron’s victory on European security and transatlantic relations.

In 2017, Macron’s election was received with relief in many European capitals. The survival of the European Union was at stake, with concern that a Marine Le Pen victory, coming on the heels of Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory, might prompt a further unravelling of Europe’s union. Macron won on explicitly pro-EU platform, but when he outlined his vision for Europe, he was met with a cold silence from Berlin and has largely been stymied in his ambitions.

Five years later, a reelected Macron is facing a radically different security and political landscape. Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine is giving a new sense of urgency to the project of building a true European defense. The European Union has for the first time provided lethal military assistance, taken bold steps on sanctions, and is now working aggressively to extract itself from dependence on Russian energy.

While this crisis has given renewed momentum to the European project, recent elections across Europe have also created the conditions for bold actions. For the next three years, France and Germany will be led by pro-EU governments. The most respected economic figure in Europe runs Italy and is pressing for ambitious budgetary reform, all the while the “frugal” countries that have steadfastly opposed EU spending plans have experienced political shifts.

Even though President Macron still needs to win the parliamentary elections in June, he will resume his efforts on the European stage without delay. With France chairing the presidency of the Council of the European Union until June, the French president will be in a position to push for innovative EU action. There will be some hurdles on the road, but stars are aligning for major advances in the European project.

New Political Landscape

President Macron’s reelection comes after a series of shifts in European politics which have transformed Europe’s political landscape. Across Europe, a growing number of governments are now supporting an ambitious EU agenda, chief among them the new German coalition led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz. While being a steadfast supporter of Europe, former chancellor Angela Merkel was also a force for the status quo and resisted efforts to reform Europe. The departure of Merkel from German politics therefore ushers in a new era not only for Germany, but potentially for Europe.

The new German governing coalition agreement represents a remarkable shift from Merkel when it comes to the European Union. As finance minister, it was Olaf Scholz that served as the architect of the Next Generation EU program, where the European Union for the first time borrowed from financial markets to invest in economic recovery. While this was billed as a one-off, once the European Union takes an action, a precedent is set.

Moreover, Alliance 90/The Greens and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) are also both in favor of EU defense. While the FDP’s aversion to more borrowing and increasing spending may serve as an obstacle to some bolder initiatives, there is, in general, a German government in Berlin that is much more open to reforming the European Union and that critically lacks the clout that Merkel had to simply say no. The Scholz government has already made historic moves in the Ukraine crisis, even though under public pressure.

A second shift in European politics is that Mario Draghi leads Italy. Draghi is undoubtedly the most respected economic figure in Europe. Famous for his role in saving the euro as head of the European Central Bank, Draghi’s influence was demonstrated in the crafting of Russia sanctions. It was Draghi, and his relationship with former chair of the Federal Reserve, now U.S. treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, that helped spur the United States and the European Union to sanction Russia’s central bank. Draghi is also pushing the European Union to expand its budget and common investment. He coauthored an opinion piece with Macron in December calling for “large-scale investment in research, infrastructure, digitisation and defence.” This view is also backed by center-left governments in Spain and Portugal.

A third factor is the softening of the pro-austerity bloc of countries known as “frugals.” Germany under Merkel was the primary leader of this bloc. But when Germany shifted to support the Next Generation EU program, it was left to Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte to lead the charge against greater EU investment. Rutte forced some changes to the program and also insisted in a reduction of the EU’s regular budget, which meant largely cutting EU defense initiatives. But since then, the Dutch have had an election. While Rutte remains prime minister, his coalition has changed. The 2021 Dutch election saw the pro-EU center-left “D66” become the second largest party, resulting in Sigrid Kaag replacing austerity-minded and center-right Wopke Hoekstra in the critical role of finance minister. Meanwhile, other frugal states like Sweden and Finland largely led from behind in past budgetary fights. But with the war in Ukraine, neither center-left government is likely to stand in the way of efforts to bolster the European Union.

Fourth, Eastern Europe may need the European Union to step up. Poland was on a collision course with the European Union over rule-of-law concerns before the crisis. But the war has changed the tone and Poland is now firmly back in the European fold. Additionally, Slovenia’s far-right Euro-skeptic leader was also defeated at the polls last Sunday as well. More largely, there is a shared desire for bolder action in response to the Ukraine war in Central and Eastern Europe, whether to spur an energy transition, cope with Ukrainian refugees, or strengthen common defense.

The one glaring exception is Hungary, with newly elected Viktor Orbán, who is a known opponent of EU integration. Orbán has already expressed his opposition to any additional EU sanctions against Russian fossil fuels and will probably resist any ambitious reforms at the EU level. Yet, Budapest is increasingly isolated within the European Union. It has lost an ally in Slovenia with the defeat of its populist prime minister and is now at odds with Warsaw over Russia. Throughout his tenure, Orbán has carefully picked his battles with the European Union. He went along with Russia sanctions, for instance. It is unclear whether Orbán, feeling empowered and also challenged by the European Union now threatening to withhold EU funding, will grind the European Union to a halt or pursue a more tactful course. The European Union cannot let its future become hijacked by a recalcitrant Orbán.

Time to Think Big

France and its European partners should seize this rare moment to push ambitious proposals at the EU level. The extraordinary early March summit in Versailles has already set clear priorities but fell short in terms of concrete initiatives. Convened by France to think about the aftershocks of the war in Ukraine, EU leaders agreed to “take further decisive steps towards building our European sovereignty,” in particular in three domains: defense, energy, and investment. They also put EU enlargement at the front of the agenda by formally launching Ukraine’s accession process. As EU leaders will meet again at the end of May and then in June, they will need to translate these good intentions into tangible decisions.

On defense, European countries have already taken historic decisions in response to Russia’s war of aggression. With a rare sense of purpose, Europeans have swiftly deployed troops to NATO’s eastern flank, provided lethal security assistance to Ukrainian forces, and committed to substantially increase their defense spending. Yet, these decisions could be short-lived if there are not sustained by a clear plan to build a true European defense. Fortunately, Europeans have recently agreed on a new roadmap for the years to come with the adoption of a new “Strategic Compass.” Now, Europeans need to walk the talk and invest in strategic enablers and next generation capabilities, enhance their operational readiness, increase their collective resilience in cyber space and outer space, and boost their presence in strategic maritime areas.

On energy and climate, the war in Ukraine has given urgency to the multi-decade project to reform the European energy system. The European Commission has already set the ambitious objective of making Europe independent from Russian fossil fuels by 2027 and will present by mid-May its plan to meet that target. This energy divorce will in particular require Europeans to accelerate the reduction of their reliance on fossil fuels, double down on the development of renewables and speed up the improvement of their energy efficiency. In other words, Europeans will have to amplify their climate strategy while creating the solidarity mechanisms to contain the rise in energy prices.

Critically, addressing the security, energy, and economic fallout of this crisis will require money. Europeans will need to scale up their investments at both the national and EU levels. EU countries will have to mobilize private investments, national funding and, most importantly, EU spending. The European Union’s historic 750 billion euro Next Generation EU recovery plan offers a potential model for financing these new initiatives. As with Next Generation EU, the European Commission could borrow on capital markets and transfer grants to member states to support collaborative investments in these strategic areas.

Last but not least, the European Union needs to revive its enlargement policy, which has been stalled for years, if not decades. The war in Ukraine has exposed, in a brutal manner, how past enlargements have played an instrumental role in Europe’s peace and stability. EU member states already took the decision to consider the applications of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, while Paris and Berlin have signaled their support to a rapid integration of the Western Balkans. Even though the accession process can be long and cumbersome, EU countries need to give a clear and tangible perspective of accession to the candidate countries, while supporting them in this transition, particularly Ukraine. This issue will be discussed at the highest level as France will host a conference on the Western Balkans next June.

But the European Union cannot enlarge until it also adopts difficult internal reforms. What has stalled enlargement is not just a lack of progress in aspiring Balkan states but internal challenges within the European Union. Operating a political union that demands the consensus of all 27 member states to tackle any meaningful issue can be incredibly cumbersome. The European Union’s decisionmaking process will need to become more flexible as it welcomes additional members. Thus, the European Union needs to start a much-needed conversation about institutional reforms now. This conversation should be directly linked to discussion of Ukraine’s membership, as it will give some political momentum and urgency to internal reform.

Stumbling Blocks Ahead

An ambitious agenda will meet resistance within the European Union. While being more sympathetic to greater European integration, Germany and the frugal states will probably resist moves to expand EU revenue and budget. Poland and the Baltic states might be concerned that new initiatives on EU defense could duplicate or compete with NATO or would be opposed by the United States.

To overcome these concerns, the European Union should focus its efforts where pan-European action is needed or where member states need support. For instance, EU investment could focus on critical infrastructure projects that build broader EU energy resilience. On defense, the European Union should prioritize critical capability gaps that are beyond the capacity of individual European NATO members, such as acquiring strategic enablers like air transport planes. Moreover, the European Union could provide funding to help transition Eastern European members off Soviet equipment.

Admittedly, while the stars are aligning, the odds are always against gaining unanimous support within the European Union for bold action. Yet bold action is exactly what the European Union has managed to do on enacting Russia sanctions, issuing debt through Next Generation EU, and taking action on climate with the Green Deal, and on technology policy with the Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act. What could help prompt bolder EU action is support from Washington.

Enter Washington

The United States has taken an ambivalent approach to internal EU developments, viewing it as up to the Europeans to decide the future of Europe. But how the European Union moves forward on enlargement, whether it can spur a Marshall Plan-level of investment in Ukraine, and whether it can make additional defense investments that fill critical gaps in European security deeply matter to the security of the United States.

Moreover, the United States does not have to be a passive actor in these conversations. Too often the United States only raises its voice when it has concerns, such as whether EU tech regulations will hurt U.S. companies or whether EU defense efforts will lock out U.S. defense companies. Instead of a reactive and often negative agenda, the United States should articulate a clear and positive vision for where it wants the European Union to go. Washington has more influence in Europe, given NATO and its security presence, than any other region of the world. The Biden administration should use that influence—whether that is to push for internal EU reforms to enable EU enlargement or to spur greater defense investments.

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States pushed so strongly for European integration that West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer once quipped to Secretary of State Dean Acheson that “Americans were the best Europeans.” As war is once again raging in Europe, the United States should rediscover this impulse and push European leaders to seize the moment to strengthen their union.

Max Bergmann is director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Pierre Morcos is a visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Max Bergmann
Director, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program and Stuart Center

Pierre Morcos