When I was a kid I used to love watching an animated cartoon series called Pinky and the Brain. The show was about the adventures of two lab mice, Pinky, tall and slender and a bit stupid, and the other, Brain, short, with an enormous head and, as a result, super-intelligent. The various adventures always began with a conversation between the two at the start of each episode. As soon as the lab scientists left them alone, Pinky would ask the Brian what their plans were for the night to which the Brain would respond emphatically: “The same thing we do every night, Pinky – try to take over the world!” Obviously every single one of the Brain’s plans would fail, sometimes because of the scatter-brained Pinky, other times because of a miscalculation from the brainy mouse himself.
Watching Macron’s speech at the Sorbonne last week it was exactly this – the show’s leitmotif – that came to mind. I don’t want to caricature an intervention that was valid in many ways, founded on a courageous vision and delivered with a charisma that was both strong and sober, but the more insidious ‘loop’ at its base. Indeed Macron’s intervention can certainly be seen as necessary in a context where there are so few innovative ideas. And it might actually be useful if – as it seemed to many – this was a search for an interlocutor, a way to open a dialogue, while putting his opinion out there.
For the biggest risk hidden in Macron’s plans is to try to search for solutions before identifying exactly where the problems are coming from.
What took me back to my childhood though, and Pinky and the Brain, was the repetition of the theme of ‘saving Europe’, the continuous evocation of used and abused images of a Europe that looks for its unity in the pronouncements of leaders of single countries for a better future and then, when faced with actual problems (the migrant crisis, the parameters of Maastricht, the democratisation of institutions etc) fails to translate this sentiment into concrete action, holing up instead inside national borders. Farsighted plans are no doubt needed – together with concrete proposals to apply immediately – but the doubt one has of the French President is that his words are transformed into circumstantial phrases, unable to take hold in the real European context. For the biggest risk hidden in Macron’s plans is to try to search for solutions before identifying exactly where the problems are coming from.
“I say to all the European leaders, to all members of parliament in Europe, to all European people… there’s no choice, there’s no longer this luxury to be able to choose” explained Macron in one of the most heartfelt moments of the speech. “We need to vote for this Europe, this ambition, this is the time to jolt consciences.” One question immediate question though, which might seem rather banal: have we actually decided what “this Europe” means?
Have we actually decided what “this Europe” means?
Let’s look at the facts. No European country has a majority that prioritises ‘being European’ over its own nationality (Eurobarometer May 2017). How we see Europe, what it is and what we think it should do varies from region to region, country to country. If for some Italian citizens it might seem an urgent priority to confront the migration question, and to worry about it, many other countries have shown they are not in agreement with solving this in a shared manner. Not to mention the economic rigour of Germany which has created resentment in half the continent but has been a landmark in the country’s domestic politics. With so many competing priorities what we are left with is a mosaic of different visions about what European institutions should be and do, dictated by internal political dynamics that necessarily have repercussions on the relationships – and power balance – between different nations.
Changing the gears of Europe’s machinery is no doubt necessary, but the direction itself cannot be defined by a single country or leader. Certainly there has to be a vision beyond the temporal horizon of the mandate of a president or chancellor. The question Macron has not yet answered is how to transform his ideas into concrete practices, how to build agreement between countries that have a different vision of what Europe should be and what needs to be done.
The six ‘key points’ identified by the French President – youth, innovation, common defence, a joint eurozone budget, climate change, migration – will need to transform themselves into a passpartù, capable of opening the national gates that limit action within existing political communities. The alternative, that no leader of state can really permit, is a great relinquishing of sovereignty. Leaving aside the possibility of the collapse of the European Union, the game is played around these two extremes: either more sharing or greater concessions. In both cases it is necessary to know what ‘this Europe’ really is. Without this, the risk is that of remaining stuck inside the Pinky and the Brain loop.