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Macron’s Game-Changer

Photo: Gouvernement français

by Joseph Pearson

BERLIN 08.05.17.

The motor of Europe is France and Germany. With Emmanuel Macron’s election as French President, that motor is now full of fuel. Positive results for pro-EU candidates in Austria and the Netherlands in the past months can now be put in the context of a wider trend: that a pro-EU message can win elections.

After Trump and Brexit, the media chose a conflictual story to spin out in the news cycle. The vague rubric ‘populism’ was posited as a global, cross-cultural, phenomenon. We waited for the ‘domino effect’ during this important election year. Trump and May would yield Wilders and Le Pen.

Except they did not. There is a connection between reasons voters in the Rust Belt supported Trump, those in England’s Midlands voted Leave, and those in Pas-de-Calais voted for Le Pen. Economic anxieties––the pains of de-industrialisation in the age of global capitalism––motivated protest votes. But despite economic similarities, these places are also worlds apart culturally and politically, and direct causal connections are often simplifying. Many news outlets are now scrambling, looking for the next story, as their predictions have not worked out. I wonder if they, for a change, might embrace a good news message for once: the possible reinvigoration of the EU project. Good news doesn’t easily sell newspapers used to making money from fear.

A few observations, now, about the current context for Germany and Britain:

First, Germany: The elections in September will likely be a fight between pro-EU parties, the CDU’s Angela Merkel and the SPD’s Martin Schulz, who was President of the European Parliament for five years. The far-right is slipping at present. The AfD’s party leader stepped down last month and there was a meagre result of 5,9% in this weekend’s vote in Schleswig-Holstein––no big surprise, except that federal polling averages are similar (around 7-8%). Pollsters appear to do a much better job on the Continent than in either the US or Britain, and so these numbers––with high levels of pro-EU sentiment in the public––promise a continuity of Germany’s position as Europe’s great integrator. We need not look forward to the German elections with trepidation: pro-EU actors can get on to the business of the future of Europe without waiting for them.

Meanwhile, in Britain: if Brexit has done anything across the continent, it has made Euroscepticism extremely unattractive. Britain looks increasingly afloat and delusional in negotiations (the by-now famous Juncker-May dinner of last week is just one case in point), thinking themselves an equal partner when only a disastrous ‘no-deal’ return to WTO-rules is the default option. One wonders whether British negotiators actually live in an Imperial dream––even when those laurels are now dead leaves being swept up into a bin––or whether this delusion is intentional posturing in order to ‘get the best deal’. But time is running out, and banks in London’s City are already moving talent abroad. The economic repercussions of Brexit loom like an illness that has been diagnosed, but whose symptoms are only just beginning to become apparent (and will be fully seen in less than two years when the cliff-edge is met). A deal now looks increasingly unlikely. Meanwhile, nationalism and xenophobia flourish in the island’s gutter press (and in hate-crime statistics). It’s extremely sad that Britain––and the nearly half of its population who voted Remain, in a referendum that was after all only advisory––should be providing the instructive counter-example for the future of Europe. The fates of so many lives of EU nationals in Britain, and Brits on the Continent, are also being toyed with in the process.

Pro-EU actors in Europe shouldn’t ever get too comfortable: a third of the electorate in France, after all, voted for a non-EU platform and there was a record number of spoiled ballots and no-shows. Macron still has no seats in the French legislature (elections are in mid June). Had Macron lost the second round of the election, it would, I think, have been the end of the European Union as we know it. This speaks to the block’s fragility. It also accounts for the enormous sense of relief (as opposed to celebration) across the continent, from the many who are much less enthusiastic about Macron’s program of liberal economics. Recent uncertainty in France is an argument for making the EU more resistant in future to the vagaries of national politics.

Meanwhile, there are still economic troubles looming (Italian banks). And who will be left out, if the future of Europe is on several speeds (as suggested by EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s White Paper in late February)? What is the future of those countries––at Europe’s edge?––such as Hungary or Poland, which are the subject of intense scrutiny because of undemocratic practices? Or Greece, which could be demoted to a slower speed to stabilise EU finances? And what does Macron’s sweeping away of establishment parties mean: is it a necessary reinvigoration, replacement of an older generation by young talent, the Trudeau-ification of European politics? Or is it also a sign of instability?

Nonetheless, the French election is a game-changer. It is important to pro-EU morale precisely because it begins to answer the big question posed after Brexit––will there be more or less Europe on the Continent? At the ballot box, it looks like the answer is the former. And it is the reason why Beethoven’s hymn, the EU Anthem, accompanied Emmanuel Macron’s long solitary walk last night across the courtyard of the Louvre to the podium.