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16 June 2023

Is Emmanuel Macron scared of Europe?

The French president is increasingly adrift in a changing continent.

By Ben Judah

Europe is not a museum. It is blurring with Africa and Asia, and not only demographically. Europe has never, as our maps imagine, truly been a place apart from other continents. The common destiny that Europeans share has been shaped over the past decade by events outside its borders and outside its control: from the Syrian War that sent millions north-westwards, to the tangled crisis of development, climate and expectations affecting Africa which has seen millions more start to move towards the same destination. This is as epochal a change as any in our history, and forces us to ask fundamental questions about what Europe is today.

Over the past five years, reporting for my new book This Is Europe, I found myself a witness to this blurring. The Italian philosopher Lorenzo Marsili once called Europe a laboratory of the human future. As the 2010s gave way to the 2020s, I felt as if I was watching that future arrive. In Burgundy, eastern France, vines were being harvested a full month out of their centuries-long cycles. In Russia, gas workers watched herds of reindeer drop dead from climate change as they drilled ever deeper. And in countless love affairs and family stories, the very fabric of chance and encounter has been remade by apps.

This blurring was most obvious to migrants. Aboud, who fled Syria, found himself working as an Amazon driver in Berlin. He felt trapped in the soft authoritarianism of the gig economy, and was shocked by how a city he believed was German was now heavily African and Middle Eastern. Aboud’s life was on a different path from Haidar’s. He was also from Syria, but now lived a completely different life from Aboud in Berlin. Whereas Aboud found himself trapped, Haidar was taking full advantage of Europe’s freedoms. He found joy in expressing himself as a queer dancer, through nightclub drag shows. Haidar came out as a gay man. But equally, Mahjoub, who I met in France’s old papal city of Avignon, had also used this freedom to become what his Tunisian parents, who integrated with old French culture, were not – a Salafist imam. Europe’s freedoms are gifting destinies of both deep disappointment and immense fulfilment. These three men who arrived from outside the continent show how crude percentages of a rising foreign-born or Muslim-origin population partially miss the point: a very weird, very online and, in a new way, very European culture is being born through a collision of migration, tradition and tech.

The continent is changing in front of our eyes. Can Europe’s politicians keep up? No leader has grappled more deeply with these questions of European identity than Emmanuel Macron. Europe’s contradictions have long been evident to him. In many ways he had the perfect education for this moment as the student of the French philosopher of memory Paul Ricœur. From his university days Macron understood that our identities are not only shaped by the personal narratives we carry with us, but by the political structures we live inside. And that Europe is made up not just of the facts and events we choose to remember or face up to – but those we choose to forget and studiously ignore.

[See also: Brexit has an upside: Britain could dominate in high-tech goods and services]

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At the Globsec conference last month in Bratislava, Macron struggled to answer the questions this blurring of the landscape raises. There, in front of the European foreign policy crowd, he laid out his political answers to the question of what this continent is. Europe, Macron believes, needs a new summit: a G20 style grouping known as the European Political Community (EPC). At its second meeting at the start of June, every leader the EU considers European – except Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – met in Moldova. “Act decisively. Move swiftly. Dream big,” said Macron at the launch of the EPC. “These words are not only the prerogative of China or the United States of America.” This catches his big fear: that Europe – politically – is disappearing. And if it cannot organise itself, it will only be organised by others.

But Europe, for him, is not a patchwork of nations, or merely a series of values enshrined in human rights legislation – but a “singular” civilisation with “Judeo-Christian roots”. This means political Europe excludes Muslim Turkey and has an uncomfortable edge with the roughly 10 per cent of France and 5 per cent of Europe that is Muslim, many of whom, such as in Albania, have been so for centuries.

Macron’s favourite political phrase is en même temps – at the same time. Domestically, he believes he is balancing Europe’s contradictions on immigration and demographic change. Europe’s cultural inheritance is both rights-based universalism and national particularism. At home, he thinks his en même temps means that the tougher your position is on borders, the more open you can be internally; Macron can embrace France’s diverse population, while seeking to slow the process of demographic change. The danger is that this balancing act collapses. What happens if his tough rhetoric on migration never goes beyond words? Power will be inherited by Marine Le Pen and her soulmates like Giorgia Meloni in Italy, and Herbert Kickl in Austria.

Macron’s approach does not speak to the new, blurring Europe. Membership of his European Political Community is made up of four kinds of countries: current EU members, future EU members, former and semi-EU members, and partners in a future European security order. A better invite list would include North African leaders as observers. They should be partners in a new European order on migration, energy and the climate. Deeper, structured partnerships with these countries – particularly, to both limit and reduce suffering on dangerous migration routes – is one way for Europe to control its destiny. It would also send a statement about European identity.

Europe is more than a metaphor, map or a political system. For all his faults, Macron understands this. He is right to conceive of Europe as a civilisation. We live, inescapably, in stories about the past and the future. Europe needs the stories of civilisationism – just not a narrow and exclusionary civilisationism. There is a wider, richer, blurrier story to tell about Europe’s heritage and future, which doesn’t exclude Islam from its history and is honest about the long exploitation of Africans in making it what it is. A story that fits its community as it blurs demographically and bends politically to find new structures that can work across the Mediterranean. This is Europe, both something new and something ancient, a story that is ready to be retold.

“This is Europe: The Way We Live Now” was released on 15 June by Picador.

[See also: Ambassador Fu Cong: “Europe will not become a vassal to China”]

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