Europe's savior or disruptor? Macron wanted an EU revolution — but little has changed

Emmanuel Macron, France's president, speaks ahead of the Balkan summit at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, on Monday, April 29, 2019.
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French President Emmanuel Macron has frustrated many of his European counterparts with his approach to EU politics.

After being elected in May 2017, Macron was dubbed as the next leading figure in Europe — challenging German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the main champion of the European Union.

Macron, the youngest ever French president, defeated his country's nationalist forces and made big promises to reform the 28-member bloc. However, two years into his presidency he seems to be struggling to get the Europe he envisioned.

He has not been able to build the pan-European platform he wanted, Shahin Vallee, an economist who advised Macron when the president was France's economy minister, told CNBC over the phone.

"He has made his European policy entirely dependent on bilateral agreements with Germany," Vallee said, adding that this approach has been blocked by different coalitions inside the EU.

For example, Macron presented plans to put together a euro zone budget and an EU-wide taxation on tech firms. However, his proposals were clearly downsized to get the backing of the German government and were opposed by different governments, including the Dutch, the Finnish and the Irish.

Eugen Teodorovici, Romania's finance minister, has expressed his frustration toward this Franco-German alliance.

"All the financial and budgetary issues at EU level will be discussed first and foremost in this format, between Germany and France, and then what will remain for us? To discuss something that was already agreed at the highest level between the strongest member states? It's just something to be discussed and then we will be maybe informed?," Teodorovici told CNBC in early April.

EU policies need a bottom-up approach: Romanian finance minister

Perhaps Macron's biggest drive for integration came just four months in his presidency, when he addressed students at the Sorbonne University in Paris. He declared that the EU should build a joint military force by the next decade, a common defense budget and have a finance minister for the euro zone with its own budget. There's no common agreement at the EU-level for any of these ideas yet.

More recently, during a European summit to decide on the conditions for another extension to Brexit, Macron played hard ball and found himself isolated.

So much for his European leadership … He didn't make any friends tonight.
Brussels-based official

Given the impasse in London over how the U.K. should leave the EU, Prime Minister Theresa May asked her counterparts for more time to deal with the issue. Most European countries favored a long delay, of about a year, to avoid repeated meetings over Brexit. However, with a new political cycle later this year, following EU elections, Macron pushed for a shorter extension. His efforts culminated with an agreement to delay Brexit day for six months only, until October 31.

In those discussions, the French president reportedly even wanted to remove the U.K.'s right to have a representative at the European Commission, the EU's executive body. Every member country has one commissioner in Brussels — preventing the U.K. from having one would diminish its ability to have any influence on European politics.

"The problem is that the stuff he asks for violates the treaty," a Brussels-based official, with knowledge of the summit's discussions but did not want to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation, told CNBC on the night of the meeting.

"So much for his European leadership … He didn't make any friends tonight," the same official said.

Also recently, France was the only country in the EU to say no to starting trade talks with the United States. Macron is of the opinion that the EU should not work toward an agreement over trade while President Donald Trump doesn't support the latest climate change deal.

Macron pledges reforms in bid to appease Yellow Vest protesters

However, some analysts believe Macron is not truly cut-off from others and changing the EU would be a lengthy and arduous task for anyone.

"I don't think he has isolated himself at all. He is defending a viewpoint that is not widely shared by European partners, but that is shaping the European agenda," Jeremy Ghez, professor of economics and international affairs at H.E.C. Paris business school, told CNBC via email.

Arguably, without French opposition, the latest decision on Brexit could have resulted in a much longer delay.

"During the last European summit (in late March), the (leaders) were supposed to talk about China and never really did. More broadly, as the EU is preparing for a new round of trade negotiations with the U.S. and in the age of 5G technology and all its geopolitical and security ramifications, the European Union cannot be held hostage by this issue of Brexit. And this is an important point to defend," Ghez told CNBC.

"A redefinition of the EU project will not happen overnight. It's easier to brand Macron as out of touch with the 'regular people,' which he may very well be, than to redefine the way we do policy and politics within the EU," Ghez also said, adding that the upcoming European parliamentary elections will be a defining moment for Macron and the EU's future as whole.

Why is France protesting?

European citizens will head to the polls in late May, in an election that could shake Brussels to the core. For the first time in 40 years, anti-establishment parties are expected to end the dominance of mainstream politics at the European Union.

Ghez argued that Macron has succeeded in stifling traditional political opposition at home and that his real opponents are Matteo Salvini (Italy's deputy prime minister) and Viktor Orban (the prime minister of Hungary).

Arguably, Macron's fiercest opposition in France are the regular street protests, the so-called Yellow Vests, who have complained about the president's reforms and have demanded his resignation.

"The stakes are high: it's not only about his presidency but about the ability of the EU to reinvent itself from the center … Expect many stakeholders, including Macron, to fight hard as a result. The jury is still out on who wins," Ghez said.