Following Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the recent French presidential election, a wave of relief washed over many supporters of the European Union. Macron’s pro-EU stance won out against his right-wing opponent, Marine Le Pen, a sign that the recent populist surge may be subsiding. With the release of exit poll results, the euro hit a six-month high, buoyed by increased confidence that the EU would remain intact under a Macron presidency.
However, celebration of the EU’s preservation may be premature. As France’s newest president, Macron hopes to reform the EU and its currency to reduce the financial strains of EU policies on poorer members. These changes would come at the detriment of Germany and other EU countries with stronger economies, who have benefitted in recent years from a euro weakened by underperforming members. Challenging this currency advantage as the gap in member states’ economic performances widens, France’s new president may only have granted the EU a stay of execution if it continues to resist reform.
On the surface, Macron’s proposals seem more likely to draw the ire of the French workers rather than other countries in the EU. Aimed at reinvigorating the struggling French economy, his labor reforms seek to improve the competitiveness of French business by reducing labor unions’ power and cutting corporate taxes. Macron’s sees free-market policies as the path to success for the French economy, currently held back by restrictive policies that restrict the workweek to just 35 hours and make firing workers a costly process. French laborers, currently some of the most expensive workers in the EU, would become more competitive, easing France’s economic troubles in the process. Macron hopes these domestic policies will assuage the current discontent and fight the appeal of anti-EU sentiment among a French labor force struggling under scarce job opportunities and a 10 percent unemployment rate.
Critical of the EU’s use of austerity in previous years, he has also called for reforms to the EU, including a common Eurozone budget designed to promote investment in member states whose economies remain stagnant. Since his inauguration, though, Macron has taken a less aggressive stance on these proposals, no longer competing for the presidency against his populist opponent, Marine Le Pen. He announced that he will focus on domestic reforms and will not demand EU members to take on any of the debt of their weaker members. But while his EU policies may be not be a priority for now, the underlying issues with the Eurozone will not be going away anytime soon, nor will the populist elements throughout Europe let the EU’s problems be quietly swept under the rug.
After all, Macron’s EU reforms take aim at economic issues inexorably linked to a defining characteristic of the European Union: the euro. To enhance economic integration within the EU, most member states adopted the euro as their currency but lost a great deal of control over monetary policy in the process. The shortcomings of this shared currency became highly apparent in the wake of the Great Recession and Eurozone debt crisis as some EU members recovered quickly while others like Greece and Spain struggled to return to pre-crisis output levels.
Member states’ divergence in economic performance led to an unintended consequence for Eurozone countries. During the recovery of stronger economies like that of Germany, economic growth typically leads to currency appreciation, which hurts exports and tempers continued economic growth. However, the presence of weaker economies under the same currency reduces currency appreciation, helping German exports. On the flip side, this also means that the weaker economies will suffer from weaker exports, as their currency is not able to depreciate as much due to the growth of other, faster-recovering economies like Germany under the same currency. Thus, the Eurozone’s shared currency provides an extra boost to already-growing members, while weaker states find it increasingly difficult to expand exports and improve their stagnant economies.
Opposition to reforms of this currency problem unsurprisingly comes mostly from Germany, a result of its vested interest in maintaining the current EU’s currency policies to safeguard its record-high trade surplus of $270 billion. With the largest economy of any EU member, Germany also possesses significant economic and political influence to protect this position. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has reflected these realities in her meetings with Macron, agreeing only to small changes in trade policy and defense but resisting more substantial changes to the EU. Opponents to Macron’s reforms argue his proposals would require changes to the EU treaty, but the unspoken objection is still Germany’s potential loss of its currency advantage.
Though the populist surge may have settled for now, Germany cannot maintain this unfair situation for much longer, unless it offers some form of compensation to the weaker Eurozone members. If Germany continues to fight even Macron’s modest reforms, it runs the risk of galvanizing anti-EU sentiment across the struggling member states. Europeans may have been more understanding of EU intransigence in the response to earlier, radical populist movements. However, now faced with Macron’s moderate proposals to help weaker members, the EU can no longer escape blame for its failure to address the economic malaise of many of its states. Unless changes are made, the EU’s struggling member states will continue to resent the implicit subsidies they give to stronger economies like Germany through their linked currencies. If reform does not take place soon, this resentment may well give way to renewed, widespread calls for exits in numerous member states. Should this occur, Germany may not be able to salvage the EU again, but this time it will only have itself to blame.