There are times when a political leader makes a speech and just for a brief moment, a veil is drawn back, and you get a tantalising glimpse of the future.
First published in September 2017. | Updated in October 2019.
Martin Luther King talking about his dream of civil rights, JFK inviting Americans to go to the moon with him, and Reagan asking Gorbachev to ‘tear down that wall.’ After all of those speeches, we see a world that didn’t exist before, and now it’s there in front of us taking shape, full of possibilities.
So it is with Macron’s Dream of Europe speech.
There is a glorious old episode of ‘Yes Minister’ where Sir Humphrey carefully explains to the hapless Jim Hacker that; ‘the civil service is united in its desire to stop the common market succeeding, that’s why we joined it.’
As with all comedy, there is a kernel of truth in that. The British have never wanted the kind of federal state of Europe that has occasionally been mooted over the years, and so we dragged our feet and used our veto. Often just the very idea of trying to persuade the British would be enough to kill it off. It was well understood that too much Europe gave the British the vapours. We are that tourist that takes our own teabags on holiday and insists that all meals have the garlic removed from them. The EU tolerated our delicate nature for a long time. That was before Brexit and before Macron.
Macron has spent his summer visiting EU leaders and trying to persuade them of his case for radical reform and change. In just one week in August, he clocked up meetings with Austrian Chancellor Kern, the Czech Prime Minister Sobotka and Slovakia’s Robert Fico in Vienna. He moved on to Bucharest where he met with both the Romanian President Iohannis and the Prime Minister Tudose before finishing his trip in Bulgaria with President Radev and Prime Minister Borisov.
He was mainly talking about sorting out the 1996 ‘Posted Worker’s Directive’ which allows workers to pay tax and benefits in their home country which France believes is a disadvantage to their own workers whose costs are higher. It’s a small problem as only 1 percent of the European workforce come under the ‘Posted Worker Directive’, but Macron is getting out there, meeting people, listening to their concerns and voicing his.
Of course, there are obstacles, and it has to be said that countries like Poland and Hungary have voiced objections to some of Macron’s ideas, but safe to say his ‘I have a European Dream’ speech did not come out of nowhere.
My thoughts as I heard the speech unfold was that it was so full of ideas, so fresh and so modern it reminded me how stale and uninviting British politics has become. All we are offering currently is rehashed 20th-century Marxist economics or a rather home counties 1957 version of Britain ruling a wave here and there. None of it inspires. The world is developing super-fast virtual reality programming, and we are basically advocating watching Benny Hill reruns on a black and white tv set.
In the course of an hour or so, Macron invited us to consider not only a variety of ways the EU could converge systems, from a common defence force to border controls, taxation to minimum wage, overhauling the Common Agricultural Policy but he also set out a compelling and radical vision of a future Europe. He wants to make the Single Market a ‘sphere of convergence, not competition’ because guess who they will be competing with? He wants the EU to take on the might of the U.S. and China and we, of course, will be on the wrong side of the door.
The future he spoke of so passionately is a ‘sovereign Europe’, and it’s vibrant. A European Agency for Innovation sparking a digital transformation, developing an internet giant to rival the Americans. A place where 20 new cross-border universities are built by 2024 and all European students will speak two languages, and both students and apprentices will spend six months abroad. A Europe that is multilingual and multicultural but together as one.
In a world where we face the challenges of artificial intelligence and automation, it is precisely this kind of action that will enable a young European workforce to have the skills to cope. Macron also spoke of a future ‘finance partnership with Africa’ to help deal with migration. It is blue sky thinking, and it is bold, and it is so necessary.
Of course, there will be objections and problems, and it will no doubt be slow going, but in this speech, we saw the seeds of a future and one that the UK is not included in, although he did suggest cheekily that it might be so attractive that even we might want to be part of it. Some commentators have grasped this part of the speech as a sign of hope as if Europe were the ones leaving us and not the other way around. He also made it clear that the rest of the EU should give the British a response to Brexit by selecting members for European Parliament to replace us, from a transnational list. You could almost hear Ode to Joy drowning out God Save The Queen as the Britannia sank beneath the waves.
So many people from the Leave camp suggested that once the UK quit the EU they would stumble and fall. The whole project would come crashing down, and we would benefit enormously from this. That is not going to happen. It’s very clear that if Macron achieves even a quarter of what he has proposed, we will find ourselves squashed between the might of the EU and the force of the USA.
Just today, we heard that the U.S. have slapped a 220 percent tariff on Bombardier aircraft after complaints from Boeing. Theresa May made a telephone call and pressed our extra special hand-holding relationship but to no avail. 4,000 jobs are now at risk in Northern Ireland. We have a glimpse of our own future, and it’s not bright.
As the Danish finance minister Kristian Jensen said: ‘‘There are small nations, and there are countries that have not yet realised they are small nations.’’
Macron has a radical dream of European power and statehood, and it may well turn out to be our worst nightmare should we choose to continue down the yellow brick road of Brexit.🔷
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