The good ship Europa is without a helmsman, rudderless, and drifting aimlessly through the stormy seas, dangerous shoals and shark-infested waters of Brexit, immigration, a stagnating economy, Russian aggression, Chinese perfidy, American tariffs and Donald Trump’s unilateralism.
Ship Europa is in desperate need of a captain who can repair the damage and set the ship back on a course which its bickering crew can agree upon.
Traditionally, the role has fallen to one of the two continental giants—France or Germany—and sometimes, during calm and sunny periods— the former rivals together. Italy and Britain have played roles as first officers, providing political ballast to one or the other would be captains. There has even been the occasional triumvirate
Well, you can forget about Britain. It is too busy jumping ship and setting off in the same storm-tossed sea in a leaky dinghy with a tenth of the cargo. As for Italy, well its far left/far-right coalition is busy drilling holes in the ship’s hull. Meanwhile, the newly recruited officers from Eastern Europe are plotting mutiny
The crew and passengers had high hopes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and perhaps even higher hopes of the young determined-speaking French President Emmanuel Macron. The problem is that the ship is constructed as a collection of nation-states held together by the collective will of its citizens. It is not a single unitary political structure.
Being a collection of democratically-organised nation states means that it is a prerequisite that the ship’s officers have the financial and political support of the people back in their respective home ports. Angela Merkel had that support for many years and is acknowledged to have been a great helmsperson. Then she ran into the immigration problem. Her decision to allow in a million-plus refugees in 2015 was a moral triumph and a political disaster. The immigration issue has been the main cause of the split within Germany’s coalition government and resulted in her relinquishing the leadership of the Christian Democratic Union. Angela Merkel is effectively now a lame duck chancellor and extra ballast on Ship Europa.
Eager Beaver Emmanuel Macron has been quick to offer himself for the job. He proposed a European finance ministry, integrated tax structures and a new European defence force. And it looked as if he had the credentials: a fresh-faced, confident, multilingual,ex-banker and economics minister who had been swept into office on an electoral tsunami. He had everything, but most important of all, he had the support of a large French national base.
Not anymore. The confidence turned to arrogance and Macron’s position in the popularity polls sunk almost as quickly as it had risen.
A perennial problem for successive French presidents has been the politics of the street. Sarkozy, Mitterrand, Chirac… they have all called for reform of stultifying regulations governing agriculture, working hours, tax structures and a host of other areas where outdated practices were holding back the French economy and restricting France’s role in the world. On each occasion, they were forced to back down when the people took to the streets. Macron declared: “Pas Plus!” He would introduce reforms and stand firm.
His firmness may have worked if he had picked the right plank on which to stand. Unfortunately raising fuel taxes was the wrong one. It may have been good for the environment, but it hit hardest the traditionally politically active group that could least afford to tighten their belts—the rural poor. After weeks of rioting, Macron was forced to climb down. Politics is an unforgiving business. Once you slide down the slope it becomes slippery and harder to climb back up, and the jackals at the bottom increase exponentially.
Macron remains the most likely ship’s captain, but l’affaire des gilets jaunes has seriously weakened his authority at home and abroad at a time when both France and Europe need a firm hand on the tiller
Tom Arms is editor of Lookaheadnews.com