PARIS — Emmanuel Macron’s grand ideas for a comprehensive eurozone reform suffered a setback on Friday when the monetary union’s leaders failed to endorse his vision and only agreed on a progressive, long-term approach.
The French president and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has always been keen to appear to support her counterpart’s broad ideas in principle while remaining vague on specifics, tried to put on a brave face during a joint media conference at the end of two days of meetings, saying they “want” to reach a common position on how to improve the eurozone by next spring.
As for Macron’s big ideas, they will have to wait a few years to be implemented, if ever.
That wouldn’t be only the French president’s failure. While Macron could have foreseen the practical, technical and political difficulties his idea would encounter, he is not responsible for the current political void in Germany — which has been without an effective government since the inconclusive parliamentary elections in September.
Merkel’s promise that she and Macron would come up with a common vision for the future of the eurozone by March gave at best an indication of how soon she expects to be able to form a government. The Social Democrats (SPD) agreed to enter formal coalition talks with her only now.
But even if Paris and Berlin manage to paper over their major differences on the matter by then, this wouldn’t mean that things will move much faster than currently planned.
Over breakfast on Friday, leaders could only agree on things initiated a few years ago to complete the eurozone’s banking union. And European Council President Donald Tusk cautioned after the meeting that these will only proceed “step by step.” That will also be the case of the idea to transform the current eurozone bailout fund into a true “European Monetary Fund,” he added.
Tusk didn’t even bother to mention the creation of a future eurozone finance minister, simply indicating that “the discussion will continue on other ideas which need more time to mature.” He said he would convene another eurozone summitin March to discuss the matter further, which is when France and Germany hope to present a united front.
The variety of views from eurozone leaders is such that even the difficult bridging of French-German differences might not be sufficient for progress.
The Netherlands’ Prime Minister Mark Rutte seemed uneasy at the idea of another summit in March, hinting that things were moving too fast and the job should be left to finance ministers. The leaders of Italy and Portugal — whose banks are still saddled with bad loans — cautioned that moving too fast on the banking union might unsettle markets.
The latest eurozone discussion was somewhat overshadowed by an article by Jens Weidmann, the head of the German central bank, which was published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on the very day of the summit.
In the article, Weidmann reiterated the oft-expressed hard-line German view that there is no point in talking about a “transfer union” for the eurozone. According to him, what is needed first and foremost is a thorough clean-up of the banking system, as well as serious fiscal discipline in troubled countries before any further steps toward a banking union can be considered.
Macron may have tried to find comfort in another article published a day earlier in Les Echos by his friend and former colleague Sigmar Gabriel. The current German foreign minister had co-authored a few papers on the eurozone together with Macron when they were both economy ministers.
Gabriel waxed lyrical about how Macron, even while campaigning for president, had brought him a gift for his newborn child — a pink bunny that Macron had personally wrapped.
Gabriel then went on to say that Macron is “a chance for Germany” and should be supported wholeheartedly. But in a telling omission, not once did he mention his friend’s eurozone ideas.
Bjarke Smith-Meyer in Brussels contributed reporting.