July 3, 2019 / 5:47 PM / 20 days ago

With French-flavoured EU line-up, Macron builds future influence

PARIS/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - After struggling to get his way in Brussels for much of the past two years, Emmanuel Macron can claim a rare victory in brokering a deal on Europe’s new leadership team, in a sign the French president might wield greater influence in coming years.

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron attends a news conference after the European Union leaders summit, in Brussels, Belgium, July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

Three days of tortuous marathon talks came to fruition on Tuesday when EU leaders accepted Macron’s suggestion to place France’s Christine Lagarde at the European Central Bank and Germany’s Ursula Von der Leyen at the European Commission.

The French leader had pitched the centre-right female duo to Angela Merkel the day before, an EU source said, offering the German chancellor an honourable way of dropping her favourite candidate, Manfred Weber, whom Macron had firmly opposed.

The line-up, which also includes Belgian caretaker prime minister Charles Michel at the European Council - a key power-broking role between EU leaders - and Spain’s French-speaking Josep Borrell as foreign policy chief, has a distinctly French flavour.

“He has come out of this pretty well,” an EU diplomat told Reuters.

“He was the force behind getting Von der Leyen into the Commission, his liberal ally Michel got the Council and he lined up Lagarde nicely for the ECB, while Borrell, Von der Leyen also speak fluent French.”

Despite goodwill among EU leaders immediately after his election in 2017, the europhile French leader had struggled to push through his ambitious agenda for further integration in the euro zone and had found himself isolated on issues such as Brexit and trade policy, hitting opposition from Berlin and pro-austerity northern European countries.

But since European Parliament elections in May, which gave Macron’s party a decisive say in the liberal Renew Europe grouping that is indispensable to form a majority, the French president now has enough allies to make himself heard, analysts say.

Teaming up with centre-left and liberal leaders, including Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, Portugal’s Antonio Costa, Belgium’s Michel and Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel, has served as a counterweight to Berlin.

“He is now at the centre of the game but also at the centre of the European political spectrum,” Eric Maurice, head of the Schuman Foundation think-tank’s Brussels bureau, told Reuters.

“With a compatible president of the European Commission, more influence at the European parliament and allies at the European Council, we can imagine he will now be able to push through change,” he added.

‘CONSTRUCTIVE AMBIGUITY’

Another reason for Macron’s success was cunning diplomacy. He kept his cards close to his chest for much of the negotiations and refraining from putting his weight behind a single candidate, despite Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, a Frenchman, being often touted as a frontrunner to head the Commission.

“All along, he maintained a sort of constructive ambiguity, and had the intelligence of not pushing for Michel Barnier,” Maurice said.

Other EU leaders were less guarded, and paid the price.

“He seemed to have a plan B, I’m not sure that’s the case for Sanchez, who faces a lot of anger among the socialists for giving up (Frans) Timmermans, and Merkel, who faced a revolt from the European People’s Party right from Sunday afternoon,” the EU diplomat said.

The French delegation also remained modest, aware of the traditional accusations of arrogance levelled at France and Macron. “It’s a good result for France,” a French diplomat simply said on Wednesday after the summit.

To be sure, Macron’s refusal to accept Weber, and his months-long, outspoken campaign against the Spitzenkandidaten system of pre-decided lead candidates for the European Commission will leave a scar in Germany, diplomats say.

But by offering Germany the possibility to have its first German national at the head of the European executive since the 1960s, he can claim to have put Europe before party while fending off burgeoning accusations of anti-German behaviour.

“By tabling the name of Von der Leyen, he has mended his relationship with Germany while refusing its candidate,” Gerard Araud, a former French ambassador, said on Twitter.

Diplomats say Macron will still face opposition on some of his key planks, including from the Netherlands on euro zone reform or from the Visegrad group of eastern European nations on the rule of law or immigration.

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron attends a news conference after the European Union leaders summit, in Brussels, Belgium, July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

But now Merkel is at the end of her time in office, Macron can claim the mantle of de facto EU leader, observers say.

“He has built political capital for the long term, and can expect a certain reciprocity and kindness from others on future challenges,” the Schuman Foundation’s Maurice said.

“While Angela Merkel no longer has the dominant, uncontested position she once held.”

Additional reporting by Belen Carreno in Madrid, Andreas Rinke in Berlin and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris; Editing by Frances Kerry

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