Macron's Attack on Nationalism Underscores Its Virtues

Emmanuel Macron gave a speech this week in which he called for a “Renaissance of the EU.” He denounced the forces of nationalism and called for a variety of measures to strengthen the power of the EU to impose conformity on its member states. Ironically, the folly of many of his proposals provide the best argument for the continued importance of citizens’ sense of allegiance to their nation states. If Macron’s program were ever implemented, it would also create an even greater nationalist backlash.

Macron wants the EU to impose a minimum wage on all its member states. While he claims that the minimum wage would be “appropriate” for each country, the most powerful EU states—not coincidentally including France—would have incentives to pressure the EU to create high minimum wages in other states so as to not to lose jobs to other EU member nations. France has (also not coincidentally) one of the highest minimum wages in the world and, as a result, a high unemployment rate. Macron is bidding to export France’s problems to others via the EU bureaucracy.

Even more remarkably, Macron wants to make sure that everyone in the EU is paid “the same wage for the same work.” What work is the same, particularly in different nations, might be thought hard to determine, but Macron appears confident that the EU is equal to the task. Here Macron wants to export the French tradition of dirigisme to the rest of Europe. But Brussels is even more physically and culturally distant from the rest of the EU than is Paris from La France Profonde, and the results of its control will be even more disastrous and alienating.

Macron’s bad proposals remind us of an essential virtue of nationalism in a globalized world. Nation-states provide an important break on the centralization of power—the centralization that Alexis de Tocqueville in his other great book, The Old Regime and the Revolution, recognized was in the French cultural DNA, whether it was ruled by Bourbons or French revolutionaries. Nationalist feelings are almost certainly a better barrier to centralized regulation than the sober cost-benefit analysis of economists. They push back against those in power who would gain from greater centralization by increasing their bureaucratic power.

Nationalism in the EU also makes governance better in Europe. By permitting the free movement of people within the EU and free trade, the EU creates a market for governance, putting pressure on states to deliver for their people or lose them. Without the constraints of nationalism, those gains will be erased as the EU becomes a super-state that itself imposes regulations that are much harder to escape.

Macron resembles the monarchs of the Bourbon restoration who, as Talleyrand noted, had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The drive for more European centralization will arouse nationalist passions that will blow the EU apart. That is the lesson of Brexit and the reaction of many Southern European nations who were put under the straightjacket of the Euro. The enemies of the EU could not have a better friend than Macron.