Like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron has a lot on his plate domestically, perhaps more hot potatoes than he can manage at the moment. But this has not stopped him from being extremely active at a global and European level, defending multilateralism and core European Union values. It’s a laudable trait at such a turbulent time in European history, politically and otherwise.
Macron is in the midst of a charm offensive, trying to gather steam for his proposed EU reforms. It’s crucial that he identify his friends and foes. In doing so, he must understand that sometimes strategic interests trump charm.
Eastern Europe – no unified block
France is a key player in the EU, and supports its continued integration. That’s something Romania and other Brussels-friendly countries may get behind, but the idea has already been poorly received in Hungary and Poland. As such, it’s difficult to call Eastern Europe a unified bloc. Macron has certainly brought a new French-style leadership and impetus to the EU. He is happy to clash with an opposing coalition led by Hungary and Italy. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a regional intellectual leader, but, unfortunately, not a constructive one for Macron’s grand European project.
In terms of EU leadership, Macron is credible and relatively predictable in his boldness. He has also put forward some interesting proposals. The eastern EU states have responded to them with mixed reviews.
Germany is still the both loved and hated de facto western EU leader (it’s hard to talk about the Franco-German equal economic engine structure after the Eurozone crisis), while Poland, recently upgraded to developed market status, is perceived as the leader of eastern voices. That being said, what the eastern EU wants — from Paris, Berlin and/or Brussels — is a better seat at the table. Whether or not nationalism and patriotism are always popular in the West, we live in patriotic and nationalistic times. Self-esteem is a strong currency across central and Eastern Europe. As a whole, Eastern Europe can be charmed by being treated with respect, of course while asking the same from it — reciprocity is the key. At the same time, a new capitalist social contract is expected by the East, a new type of arrangement in which governments bring in globalization and foreign corporations, but also make sure citizens are protected and not taken advantage of.
It’s not about fighting the US
Most Eastern European countries have or want a good relationship with the United States. That means that any EU-first (European sovereignty) talk in Eastern Europe should be a sort of “(supra)national” consolidation of the EU. It is about stabilization, not fighting the US. At the same time, it is clear that not all Eastern European countries want all the same things. Take the Visegrad Group, for example. Poland is likely to continue to team up again with Hungary, but the Czech Republic and Slovakia may not be keen to follow in vocal euroskeptic messaging. At the same time, migration and the way to deal with it may be a uniting issue among the Visegrad states, but their solution may not please France.
The Baltics are more inclined towards a strong Europe, combined with strong trans-Atlantic ties, as are Romania and Croatia — Bulgaria and Slovenia less so. What helps in some of these countries is a happy experience with their adoption of the euro; no matter the speeches on the Acropolis — and, yes, Macron tried a stylish one — it really helps a lot if your economy did not go through a Greek-style drama.
Personal charm is not enough
Looking at the Baltics, and central and southeastern Europe, Macron could find allies for his Brussels plans, but he needs localized messaging, and a case-by-case negotiation game. Personal charm is not enough. We live in pragmatic, cynical and populist times, when it’s hard to trust an EU believer, even if we spot one. Eastern Europe is aware that we are all in the same boat, but it wants to have a say in any fundamental changes to the EU’s future design. Herein lies the challenge for any reshuffle of the bloc in the immediate future. The European Parliament elections in 2019 may provide some clarity. Seeing how the split between Orban and Macron pans out could give us an idea of where the EU is headed. Hopefully, there will still be and opportunity for progress once we get through the current headaches.
Radu Magdin is a Romanian analyst and consultant. He worked as an honorary advisor to the Romanian prime minister (2014-2015) and also advised the Moldovan prime minister (2016-2017). Between 2007 and 2012, he worked in Brussels with the European Parliament, EurActiv and Google. He is a Forbes Romania Trendsetter and a NATO Emerging Leader with the Atlantic Council of the United States.