What Remains of Macron’s Sorbonne Speech Five Years Later?

Sorbonne Speech
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The main aim of the Sorbonne speech held by French President Emmanuel Macron exactly five years ago on September 26, 2017, was to get Europeans involved in debates about their aspirations for Europe and to propose a roadmap in order to avoid moving forward only in times of crisis. Five years later, the European Union has evolved much as an institution. However, this is thanks to two crisis and their repercussions: the Covid 19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Given that the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union just ended, Emmanuel Macron got re-elected for a second five-years-term, and the future of Europe was mentioned by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz already twice in recent weeks (once in the press and once during a speech in Prague) and Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, has given her third State of the Union address, what remains to be done for the future of European policy-making five years after Macron’s Sorbonne speech?

European Sovereignty and a Europe that Protects: Adopting French Concepts

Macron's speech, held in the auditorium of the Sorbonne shortly after a first speech in Athens at the foot of the Acropolis, was marked by clear concepts, bold proposals and a direct objective. The overall vision lies in the notion of European sovereignty. It gave rise to numerous semantic and constitutional debates among researchers and academics. Emmanuel Macron himself started to use the term strategic autonomy and continues to do so, as it is more consensual. While strategic autonomy was the keyword used during the Covid pandemic, referring to dependencies on medical equipment and vaccines, the term sovereignty gained ground as soon as Russia invaded Ukraine. Towards the end of the European Council in Versailles in March 2022, Emmanuel Macron declared its relevance: "European sovereignty – although a few years back some may have seen it as a slogan and some as a French fantasy – everyone now understands that it is a necessity." 

In his speech at Charles University in Prague at the end of August, generally perceived as the long-awaited German "response" to the Sorbonne speech, Olaf Scholz closed the debate by endorsing the notion of European sovereignty with a definition similar to that of the French President. He refers to an augmented capacity to act "My interest here is not in semantics. After all, what European sovereignty means, in essence, is that we grow more autonomous in all fields; that we assume greater responsibility for our own security; that we work more closely together and stand yet more united in defence of our values and interests around the world.” Germany is now challenged and has to underpin its new ambitions with concrete measures and real commitments, particular in its defence policy. For France, it remains to be seen whether the French ambitions will be translated into action, especially in its foreign affairs where national prerogatives prevail. If the unanimity rule, still required for decision-making in the European Council, were to be abolished in foreign affairs, as Olaf Scholz clearly proposes would France be ready to give up its national sovereignty in favour of a more European one?

The second notion of the Sorbonne speech, a "Europe that protects", is more controversial among European Member States even though the political discourse of the EU has seen a paradigmatic shift. In particular, Nordic countries and the more liberal Member States, including certain allies in the form of political parties in the European Parliament, interpret this French concept as an attempt at protectionism. With this term, Emmanuel Macron attempts to counter rising Euroscepticism within the country fuelled by the perception of Europe attacking the French social welfare system (one of the biggest fears of the French). But the concept of a “Europe that protects” goes even further as Macron extends the notion from strengthening borders to fighting global warming via health, digital, social and fair trade rules based on mutual standards. 

The concept also gets support from other European officials. In Prague, the German Chancellor, not least because of his social democratic constituency, stands broadly in line with this approach: he extolled the virtues of the Support to mitigate Unemployment Risks in an Emergency (SURE) programme and advocated better protection for workers. According to Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union address of September 14, European policy-making, essentially perceived as serving the European single market, should continue to follow the path of a social market economy. She stood up for proposing measures such as a European year of training and stressed the importance of the SURE programme and the NextGenerationEU recovery plan. While the concept of a Europe that protects seems to have asserted itself, it has also shown its limits and confirmed some of the fears of liberal countries. For instance, France engaged in several free trade negotiations, but only with relative enthusiasm during its Presidency.

One Common Denominator: European Values and the Rule of Law

For Emmanuel Macron, a Europe that protects is a Europe that guarantees freedom, European values and the rule of law. Following the Sorbonne speech and in light of rising populism, the French president launched a campaign for the European elections in 2019 and set his vision for the next years to follow with the current European legislative period lasting until 2024. According to him, a united European Union is based on two pillars: democratic values and the rule of law on the one hand and the single market on the other. As Macron is reaching his mid-term, it is clear that there is still a long way to go to achieve democratic values and rule of law. Hungary and Poland have proven to be hard-to-control delinquents of the rule of law, and Russia is seeking to destabilise everything that the European Union has stood for by waging war on its doorstep. The EU must be firmer in its responses to these internal and external attacks. 

The European Commission is implementing the conditionality mechanism for the disbursement of NextGenerationEU funds and should not fall for false promises from politicians such as Victor Orbán. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is also very firm on the issue of values that he covers in a chapter in his Prague speech. He supports the conditionality mechanism and even proposes to go further by creating a new mechanism that would allow the Commission to initiate an infringement procedure more easily and firmly. In the war of "autocracy against democracy", Ursula von der Leyen made this battle a priority for the whole European Union and proposed a series of measures to fight against foreign interference and corruption and protect the independence of the judiciary. In particular, she calls for the control of foreign investments to better safeguard the EU’s economy and its values. In this context, she proposed the European defence package, as the action plan for European democracy has proven insufficient.

Taxation, Finance and Migration: A Never Ending Story?

The Sorbonne speech inspired a roadmap that was gradually approved by European Member States and European institutions. In the six “keys” of European sovereignty outlined by Emmanuel Macron (security, migration, foreign policy, green transition, digital, economic, industrial and monetary policy), no major achievements could be made in two big policy areas: migration and financial policy. Olaf Scholz used his speech to readdress them and called for a firm stance on irregular immigration in order to improve the integration of regular immigrants. Like Macron, Scholz proposes a fair partnership with the countries of origin and transit countries, a strengthening of the Union's external borders to guarantee the Schengen Area and an effective and inclusive asylum policy. In fact, Macron had even proposed "a genuine European Asylum Office" but had to settle for a new asylum agency with fewer competencies. Olaf Scholz acknowledged the progressive approach pursued under the French Council Presidency and the new political steering of the Schengen area to establish a common asylum system. However, Commission President von der Leyen underlined that political will is still lacking for implementing the Pact for Migration and Asylum. When it comes to migration policy, differences remain for example, in terms of labour immigration, where France and Germany align in principle, but both countries are largely dependent on their European partners, who need to be persuaded to show more solidarity. This is likely to become even more difficult with the new populist Italian government of the right and extreme right.

Another huge bone of contention will certainly resurface on the European agenda with the Stability and Growth Pact, also mentioned by Olaf Scholz in Prague. Europe faced a genuine paradigm shift as Emmanuel Macron, together with the leaders of Spain and Italy, convinced Angela Merkel and the group of northern countries such as the Netherlands and Austria to come up with a 750 billion euro recovery plan, financed by common EU loans. The so-called Maastricht criteria of the Stability and Growth Pact have been suspended in order to deal more flexibly with the Covid 19 crisis: "Member States should have more flexibility on their debt reduction paths. But there should be more accountability on the delivery of what we have agreed on. There should be simpler rules that all can follow.” 

Ursula von der Leyen’s proposals, to be detailed in October seem to comply with the conceptions of former finance minister Olaf Scholz and his liberal successor, Christian Lindner. The President of the Commission advocates "rediscover the Maastricht spirit [because] stability and growth can only go hand in hand.” Thus, Olaf Scholz pleads for negotiated agreements to accompany the deleveraging of countries that are binding, growth-oriented and politically acceptable. France, notably its Minister of the Economy and Finance, Bruno Le Maire, who follows a growth-oriented approach, will have to sort out a deal in this controversial policy area. Given the yellow vest movement, France has to find a political compromise with the Commission and its European partners by taking into account the political situation at home.

What Reforms are Needed for a "Refoundation of Europe”?

Thanks to the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union, several projects envisaged in the Sorbonne speech have become a reality. However, Emmanuel Macron indicated himself that transforming the EU would take around ten years, meaning two terms of office for a French President.

In 2017, he proposed nothing less than a “refoundation of Europe” and invited Member States to join a respective follow-up group responsible for identifying the changes needed to make Europe stronger, faster and more efficient. This group never materialised. Nevertheless, two major reform plans included in Macron’s Sorbonne speech are currently being debated: setting up transnational lists for the European elections and reducing the number of Commissioners to 15. This would mean that even founding countries like France should set an example by giving up their commissioner. Olaf Scholz's speech was held with less enthusiasm than Macron's when it comes to reforming – there was no mention of a “refounding” of the European Union. His ideas to reform the European institutions seem to be slightly more concrete and tangible but therefore, less visionary. The German Chancellor aspires to an efficient EU governance in light of a potential new round of enlargement. In line with Angela Merkel, Olaf Scholz follows the German approach of federalism, recalling Germany’s position in the middle of Europe as it expands eastwards. He rejects a "Europe of exclusive clubs or directorates", whereas Emmanuel Macron favoured the "driving ambition of some while allowing others to move ahead at their own speed". Scholz nevertheless said he was in favour of "coalitions of the willing" to make political decision-making processes more flexible. On the question of representativeness, he made no reference to transnational lists, which were already approved by the European Parliament but not yet greenlighted by the Council. Stressing the importance of smaller Member States, Scholz is against reducing the number of commissioners and proposed to introduce a new system of task-sharing of portfolios by pairs. In the same spirit, he suggested a gradual shift towards majority voting, notably for the common foreign and fiscal policy. Given the ongoing reluctance of small member states to surrender power, he proposed the idea of a "constructive abstention" in order to find a compromise. With regard to the European Parliament, maintaining the number of MEPs despite the integration of new Member States and recalculating the representativeness of each one seems more appropriate for Olaf Scholz – not to forget that this could be advantageous for Germany. For the time being, Ursula von der Leyen has not defined the position of the Commission yet. Instead, she proposed the launch of a European convention before any enlargement took place in order to improve the functioning of the European Union. The Commission is thus responding to a request from the European Parliament, but neither the scope, the deadline, nor the method of this Convention (which could mark a major step for European integration) has been specified for the moment. In order to overcome the reluctance within the European Council, Emmanuel Macron initially called for citizens' conventions and the Conference on the Future of Europe, betting on bolder proposals from citizens on the organisation of Europe. The French Council Presidency only had the chance to approve the conclusions of the Conference without initiating a follow-up. The German Chancellor and the President of the Commission mentioned the Convention but without calling for major institutional reforms. In a letter to the Parliament and the Czech Council Presidency, Ursula von der Leyen transmitted some of her proposals. However, they were a priori not of an institutional nature. For now, the results seem to fall short of the initial French ambitions.

During the Sorbonne speech, Emmanuel Macron declared that the time for France to make proposals is back and that the time for France to make decisions for Europe is over. Nevertheless, France’s partners remain vigilant, as evidenced by the joint declaration of the thirteen EU countries in reaction to the proposal to create a European Political Community during his speech in the European Parliament on May 9th. The German Chancellor and the President of the Commission both supported this idea, but the former called for a general renunciation of doing it alone. To those who fear that France imposes its interests via its European policy-making, Olaf Scholz claims a more resilient Germany in a sovereign Europe. This echoes Emmanuel Macron's motto of a stronger France in a powerful Europe.

Renaissance: A new Political Organisation to Complete Emmanuel Macron's European Project

The Sorbonne speech set two deadlines for achieving this “refoundation of Europe”: 2024, the end of the European Parliament's term of office, and 2027, the end of Macron’s second term as President of France. In order to give himself the means to act, Macron has tasked the president of Renew Europe Group, Stéphane Séjourné, with reorganising and directing his party, now called "Renaissance". It shall follow a double motto: to be French and European. Europe comes second in the list of the twelve referred values of the new party. In the governance team, composed of twelve people, another former Mister Europe can be found, Clément Beaune. It, therefore, seems as if national and European interlinkages are widely ensured within Renaissance.

These interlinkages are highly necessary in the face of a new wave of rising populism and extremism, as witnessed in Sweden or Italy, provoked by fears of the war in Ukraine. In view of the upcoming European elections, how will the situation in Poland and Hungary evolve if sanctions are tightened? What will be the capacity of Renew Europe's member parties to lead a real European campaign going beyond national debates jointly? Will public support for Ukraine last in the long run, despite the rising dissatisfaction with the high cost of living? These appear to be the next challenges for Emmanuel Macron and his entourage because, depending on the results of the next European elections, his momentum will either be slowed down or reinforced. In 2024, Macron will have two years to complete the pursuit of his European project and demonstrate that the Sorbonne speech has indeed given a new and durable impetus to European integration.

Éric Pestel is Secretary General of the Association pour une Renaissance européene Paris and co-author of the study “Vive l’Europe – French European policy-making under Emmanuel Macron”. l. The opinions and analyses presented are strictly personal.

European Affairs Manager Jeanette Süß responsible for the Foundation’s projects on France and co-author of the study “Vive l’Europe – French European policy-making under Emmanuel Macron