The European Union is riddled with overlapping problems. The euro currency crisis, diverging policies on Russia and Turkey, irregular migration patterns, rising nationalism, terrorism and Euroskepticism are just a few — not to mention the Brexit. With all of these issues piling up, it's little wonder that some EU leaders have judged the European project to be on the brink of its demise. As Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament, put it in 2015, "the failure of Europe is a realistic scenario." But just as many have assumed the Continent's collapse to be a reality, two political figures have offered much-needed optimism for Europe's future.
A Shared Vision for Reform
The wide array of proposals that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and French President Emmanuel Macron laid out in recent speeches are not only comprehensive but also strikingly similar. On Sept. 13 in Strasbourg, France, Juncker presented a timeline for a more unified, robust and democratic union. Among several initiatives intended to further this goal, the most notable were the conclusion of new free trade agreements, digitization and the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. He also suggested that European Parliament elections offer a transnational ticket. Beyond the Continent's internal policies, Juncker called for the creation of a cybersecurity agency, the establishment of an EU defense force and the accession of the Western Balkans to the bloc.
Nearly two weeks later, the newly elected Macron echoed the need for the European Union to become more democratic and sovereign. During a keynote speech at Sorbonne university in Paris, the French president presented himself as the chief architect of the European Union's development. By his diagnosis, the Continent reacts far too slowly to emerging issues, including far-right nationalism, isolationism and anti-immigration sentiment. His prognosis: a revived and integrated Europe. A European border police force, a European asylum and immigration authority, a European prosecutor against terrorism, a European intervention force and a European civil protection body would all represent strides toward his vision of the Continent. To make the European project more meaningful in the hearts and minds of its citizens, moreover, Macron stressed the need to reform the bloc's overbearing bureaucracy, in part by reducing the number of EU commissioners from 28 to 15.
Where the two leaders' suggestions notably differ are in the economic orientation of Macron's proposals and the motive behind them: to garner German support. The French president has argued that the European Union's macroeconomic decisions ought to be better coordinated with enterprise and insolvency laws, and that European social funds should be established. In addition to reducing unemployment, particularly among youths, Macron also aims to close the gap between minimum wage structures across the Continent.
For maximum impact, the president timed his speech carefully. Rather than attempt to influence the outcome of Germany's general elections on Sept. 24, Macron gave his speech two days after the vote concluded to coincide with the formation of the incoming government in Berlin. His decision was significant. France, after all, continues to rely on Germany as a close ally in implementing necessary and far-reaching EU reforms, just as it did when the pair were jointly considered the "European Engine" decades ago. With this collaborative spirit in mind, Macron advocated the renewal of the two countries' historic Elysee Treaty of friendship early next year, on its 55th anniversary.
Mapping a Way Forward
Given the deep reservations and obstacles that stand in their way, the leaders' proposals on the economy, the environment, defense and foreign policy may not be realized in the near future — especially since some would require a unanimous decision to reform the Maastricht Treaty. Several of Juncker's plans, moreover, have been deemed too ambitious; the extension of the Schengen area, the installation of a European finance minister and the use of the euro as the currency for the entire European Union are just a few of the schemes that have little chance of coming to fruition anytime soon.
But for the most part, the vision that Juncker and Macron share has been well-received, and the debates about its actualization show that the process of more systematic European integration is underway. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already indicated her support for the plan and for closer cooperation with France, though she won't be able to officially respond to the proposals until a new government is in place in Berlin. Of course, the composition of that government may present its own challenges, since it will likely include the Free Democrats, who may be disinclined to back some of Macron's ideas.
Even so, the European Union has successfully fostered cooperation and closer ties amid setbacks before. One need only recall the Continent's effective response to its initial failure to ratify the European Constitutional Treaty, which led to the Treaty of Lisbon, or the difficulties of German reunification that opened the door to the creation of the euro and the European Central Bank.
Today, both speeches have served their purpose: to jump-start discussions of deeper integration and to outline the grand plans for reform that Europe so desperately needs. To what extent Juncker and Macron's hopes for the political and economic renewal of the European Union will prevail remains to be seen.