For Emmanuel Macron, the road to more power in Brussels involves a detour to the east.
The French president has been investing political capital in Central and Eastern Europe, a region of little interest to his predecessors, where the economic might of Germany and the military clout of the United States has long held more sway than Paris.
Macron’s courting of the region has included multiple visits, an outreach effort by his party to find partners there and, most recently, backing candidates from Romania and Bulgaria for senior international posts.
Macron won’t find it easy to usurp long-standing alliances and some of his policies so far have been seen as decidedly Eastern-unfriendly. But as a relative newcomer who is not part of either of the Continent’s big two political families, Macron and his aides know he has to establish a network of allies across Europe to maximize his influence.
The outreach to the east is part of a broader strategy of building links with political forces Macron sees as at least partially like-minded. He has cultivated relationships with the center-left leaders of Spain and Portugal, and the liberal premiers of Belgium and the Netherlands — alliances that were on full display during negotiations for the EU’s top jobs this summer.
But Macron’s big problem in building a regional alliance is in Hungary and Poland.
“It’s an ecosystem that we are putting in place that is favorable to the political agenda of the president,” said Stéphane Séjourné, a former adviser to Macron who now leads the French leader’s Renaissance delegation in the European Parliament, part of the liberal-centrist Renew Europe group.
That agenda, as outlined by Macron when he called for a “European Renaissance” earlier this year, consists of greater EU integration, a beefed-up common defense and security policy and stronger EU presence on the international stage, in trade negotiations and in setting climate and competition norms. It is also an agenda that is less liberal on economics, trade, competition and the single market than a number of EU governments would like, including some from the east.
Macron has certainly not made friends with some leaders in the region. He has berated the governments of Poland — by far the biggest EU member in Central and Eastern Europe — and of Hungary for democratic backsliding. And in Poland at least, he has been unable to marshal significant political players to join his centrist alliance.
But Macron’s alliances in the east have often not been focused on government leaders. Instead his lieutenants have cultivated relations with parties and voters who may feel disillusioned with those leaders and their nationalist views. In other words, people in Macron’s own image — young, educated, urban, socially liberal EU enthusiasts.
Longer-term, Macron’s camp is betting that such alliances will increase the chances of being able to go toe-to-toe in the next European Parliament election with the big two players, the center-right European People’s Party and center-left Party of European Socialists. When Macron launched Renaissance ahead of May’s European election, he made clear he sees it as a pan-European movement, not limited to France.
The years to come will reveal whether Macron is tapping into a major gap in Central and Eastern Europe’s political market or will remain at best a niche player.
To win over large numbers of people in the region, Macron will have to dispel the notion that he wants to take power away from Central and Eastern Europe and establish a two-tier EU, with a core of Western European countries in charge.
There is a “perception that Macron wants to change Europe via multiple integrations or introducing second-class EU members, and Central and Eastern Europeans are dead sure that they are going to be the second-class members,” said Vessela Tcherneva, deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
Macron’s appeal in the east was damaged by his push to reform the EU’s posted workers rules, which was widely seen as an attempt to make it harder for people from the region to work in France and other Western European countries.
Tcherneva, a former spokesperson for Bulgaria’s foreign ministry, said Macron has other obstacles to overcome — including France’s long neglect of the region and Germany’s economic influence there.
“Some in Eastern Europe are puzzled by his relationship with Russia and are afraid of any kind of appeasement” — Nicolas Tenzer, French strategic affairs expert
“There has been a very long hiatus,” she said, adding France’s economic ties with the region “lacks the density” of Germany, which is the dominant economic partner for Central Europe.
But, Tcherneva said, there is space for France to build alliances in areas such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and diplomacy.
Nicolas Tenzer, a French expert in strategic affairs, said Macron also needs to show he understands Eastern Europeans’ history, their concerns about Russia and the importance of U.S. security guarantees.
“There’s a real opportunity for France to do something, but [Macron] has to better demonstrate a kind of empathy for what they experienced during their communist past,” he said.
“Some in Eastern Europe are puzzled by his relationship with Russia and are afraid of any kind of appeasement. They also wonder whether through his plans for European defense, Macron won’t weaken the real security guarantee [they have] from NATO.”
Macron has at least sent a signal to Central and Eastern Europeans that they are on his mind with a series of high-profile political appointments in recent months.
Romanian Dacian Cioloș, a former prime minister, was elected leader of the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament, largely thanks to Renaissance.
Macron’s support was also pivotal in the nomination of Kristalina Georgieva of Bulgaria as Europe’s candidate to lead the International Monetary Fund, ahead of the Dutch front-runner Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who had the support of Berlin.
And in a step that would have been unimaginable until recently, Macron decided to back Romanian Laura Codruța Kövesi for the job of EU prosecutor over the candidacy of France’s own Jean-François Bohnert.
The last two moves came after no Easterners were nominated to take on any of the EU’s big five jobs — the presidents of the European Commission, Council, Parliament and Central Bank, and the high representative for foreign policy.
Backing Georgieva and Kövesi allows Macron’s supporters to claim that he is looking out for Central and Eastern Europeans in a way that other EU leaders are not.
“If Eastern countries are always under the impression that during top jobs nominations they never have a chance of winning or having someone represent them, it won’t improve the situation, it will accentuate the division [within the EU],” said a high-level French diplomatic official.
Well before those negotiations, Macron was already showing the east more attention than his predecessors. Three months into his presidential term in 2017, Macron visited Romania and Bulgaria, which hadn’t been visited by a French president in 10 years. Halfway through his term in office, he has now visited half of the ex-communist EU members in Central and Eastern Europe.
Officials insist France’s renewed interest in the region is not meant as a challenge to Germany.
And it’s not just Macron. Members of Renaissance criss-crossed Eastern Europe in the run-up to the European election, to build alliances and bring their partners into a new group in the European Parliament, which became Renew Europe.
“Going there means there’s a recognition of a partner, a privileged partner even if they aren’t in the government,” said Séjourné, in reference to the ties Renaissance has built with parties like Romania’s PLUS party, Hungary’s Momentum and the Estonian Reform Party.
“We have common battles on progressivism, the fight against illiberal democracies, a conception of democracy … We also have the desire to reshape the political landscape in these countries like LREM [Macron’s party] did in France,” said Séjourné.
Officials insist France’s renewed interest in the region is not meant as a challenge to Germany. But it is nonetheless part of a broader effort to assert greater influence in the EU by putting France at the center of the bloc’s decision-making.
“The time when France ignored … Eastern Europe and we kind of accepted that it was a zone of German political and economic influence, all of that is not our approach, and all that is over,” said the high-level diplomatic official. “It’s not out of hostility to Germany, it’s because if France wants to be a central country in the European Union.”