The singularity of Merkel’s and Hollande’s joint speech to the European Parliament (EP) was not that it happened at all, but what has triggered it. Let’s look at the precedents: this was the first time in 25 years the leaders of the two largest European economies addressed the EP together. They didn’t do so during the euro crisis, or indeed any previous crisis in living political memory.
This underscores not only the rise of the European Parliament as the forum of debate for matters of European importance, but most of all the gravity of the refugee crisis that could be truly called existential for the EU. It comes at a time when Eurosceptic parties are stronger than ever, and the issue is likely to be exploited by populist parties, whose poll ratings continue to rise – in France, the right wing Front National is currently the strongest party, and in Germany Angela Merkel – the woman who could do no wrong – is suffering her lowest ratings during her chancellorship
The EU seems unable to address the crisis, which has increased divisions between member states. And it’s not great for the EU’s reputation globally – indeed, it’s pretty unedifying that the 500m-strong political block that praises itself for its values is unable to agree on how to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers.
Hollande and Merkel’s joint address was therefore mostly a call for unity and solidarity and support for the EU’s refugee relocation plans. They aimed to reignite a sense of joint purpose and instil the feeling that EU members can only face this challenge by working with, rather than at odds with, one another. In substance, the two leaders did not say anything new. What was new was the sense of urgency and sincerity. Merkel clearly believes strongly that EU is morally responsible to help the refugees, and she is willing to risk her political capital for this issue. This time she seems not to have an eye permanently on the latest opinion polls.
Hollande started to shine when he replied to Marine Le Pen’s provocative messages, accusing him of being Merkel’s vice-chancellor (read: lap-dog) who blindly follows policies decided in Berlin, Brussels and Washington. In an emotional retort from the heart he demonstrated his formidable prowess as a debater who is engaged and combative, reminding the EP of core European values. The French media perceived Hollande’s speech very positively.
What Hollande and Merkel did not deliver was a concrete action plan on how to tackle the crisis (quelle surprise). Their message that Europe needs to stand together and that this crisis requires more Europe not less, is a familiar refrain and will grate on the ears of eurosceptics. But in combative mode, Hollande clearly made the point that “the only avenue possible for those who are not convinced of the EU is to simply leave the EU”. If this rather sounded like adding fuel to the eurosceptic fire ahead of the British referendum, there is also growing impatience in committed member states to constant chipping away at the EU block: Emmanuel Macron a French cabinet minister recently warned Cameron the UK could not just cherry-pick the benefits of EU membership without also sharing the obligations. This might indicate a change of direction for the EU, and comes on top of repeated recent pronouncements about France and Germany forging ahead with deeper integration with a core set of countries. While some eastern member states have shown themselves uncooperative in the migrant crisis, many of them will be very nervous about the prospect, no matter how remote, of becoming second-tier EU members. Hollande and Merkel’s joint address was a visible show of the importance of joint German and French leadership, but it also subtly underscored the limits of what this leadership can achieve in a Europe of 28 countries.
Arne Koeppel is Head of Research and George Candon is Senior Director in FTI Consulting’s Brussels office