The French president deserves praise, not disdain, for calling on all of us to strengthen the pillars of democracy
Emmanuel Macron’s letter to the “citizens of Europe”, calling for a European “renaissance”, was conveniently mocked or scorned by some, who picked at its lofty language (“we need to politically and culturally reinvent the shape of our civilisation”) or its seemingly unrealistic to-do list. Yet the crux of his message was found not in the roadmap he attempted to lay out, but in the audience he tried to address: the 510 million citizens of the EU’s member states.
This was the first time a European head of state or government had reached out not to fellow nationals or other governments, nor to EU institutions, but to the entirety of the bloc’s citizens. The only other leader who has ever attempted such a thing was Barack Obama, in his 2016 speech in Hanover, “Address to the people of Europe”. That day Obama gave a pep talk to Europeans, as “the heirs to a struggle for freedom”.
Of course, Macron isn’t Obama. But at a time when so much is said about citizens’ empowerment, and the need to bridge gaps between citizens and institutions, surely Macron’s efforts at a grassroots approach merit some attention. Yet much of the reaction to his letter drew on strictly nation-centric or domestic political concerns – at times very parochially so.
Ah!, went some commentators, here’s another bout of French presidential grandstanding and Gallic glory-seeking. Some scoffed in Germany that a leader rattled by the gilets jaunes crisis had the audacity to hand out lessons to others. Others, not least in Brexit Britain, huffed and puffed about a new drive for supposedly more top-down supra-national structures – projecting their own obsessions on to Macron’s words. Meanwhile, astute EU watchersin Brussels and elsewhere noted Macron’s omissions (there was significantly no mention of eurozone reform, nor of the beleaguered Franco-German alliance). And in Hungary, Viktor Orbán cynically spun his usual tropes about Macron’s vision for the EU being all about importing migrants.Advertisement
Populists left and right have no monopoly on “the people” – they only say they do. As the EU elections approach, Europeans have been protesting in large numbers against authoritarians and the corrupt power networks that “illiberal” politicians thrive on. See how 200,000 peopletook to the streets of Milan last week to denounce the racism spouting out of Italy’s far-right dominated government. See also how this winter crowds of Hungarians marched for weeks against Orbán’s “slave law”. In Poland and Romania, similar movements have called for individual rights and freedoms to be protected. Many of these protesters hope to see the EU do more for them – they’re not asking for it to be dismantled or diminished.
Macron’s thinking seems to be that this groundswell of citizens’ activism needs to be tapped into. It would indeed make sense. To be sure, the French president is vying for his En Marche! party to carve out a good base for itself in the next European Parliament. But the thrust of his message looked further than that, by calling for a pan-European “conference” that would “engage with citizens’ panels”. Whether one believes Macron can deliver or not, he should at least be taken at his word.
The notion of “European citizenship” emerged in 1992 with the Maastricht treaty which created a “Union” for “the peoples of Europe”. The European parliament is the only EU institution that is directly elected by citizens. It’s a shame that Macron’s 2017 idea of setting up transnational lists didn’t get anywhere. The EU isn’t a machine that grinds nations, it is a protection for citizens’ rights and freedoms. These are enshrined in the bloc’s treaties. There are good reasons why Obama and Macron choose to speak to the “people of Europe” or the “citizens of Europe”, as a way of pushing back against demagogues and calling for unity.
So Macron’s letter wasn’t exactly about a French “statist” urge to create new EU agencies, nor was it about Brexit – however powerful a cautionary tale that’s become. Rather, it was about how the pillars of democracy can be strengthened in Europe before it’s too late. And a reminder that, for genuine democracy to survive, citizens need to feel safe and protected. The EU has often been maligned for not giving citizens more of a say in its decisions. This letter was a way of acknowledging the problem, and seeking ways to fix it.
Citizens matter not just within national silos, but as actors of the continent’s fate. For all the headlines about extremism on the march, populists force left and right to not represent a majority in Europe – rather, they form a strident, emboldened and disruptive minority. Macron is not perfect and he doesn’t have all that many allies in the EU club, but his letter – published in 24 languages – was an unprecedented gesture reaching out to citizens across the borders of a troubled continent – an invitation to join a wider debate and salvage values that are under threat. Rather than whine or cringe, how about applauding when a politician does that?
• Natalie Nougayrède is a Guardian columnist