The run-off in the French election pits a candidate who has not hidden her deep distrust of the European Union and her willingness to deconstruct it against another who would whole-heartedly throw France into the reinvigoration of the European project. It would appear therefore that danger for the European institutions lies solely in a Marine Le Pen victory. However, whilst the potential for a Frexit would produce an immediate existential crisis for the EU, it would be a mistake to believe that Emmanuel Macron’s unashamed Europhilia will avoid risking tensions within the bloc.
Mr Macron’s approach to Europe is not entirely novel. His plan for the EU includes the creation of a single Eurozone budget administered by a joint finance ministry and approved by a parliament established for that purpose. He has embraced the idea of a ‘multi-speed Europe’, with member states opting in to new initiatives rather than following the existing model of EU integration, simultaneously across the Union with the exception of occasional opt-outs. These conceptions of EU reform have been around for a few years. Now, proposals for greater fiscal coordination are emerging out of the Eurozone crisis and the new approach to integration is gathering steam since the impasse over the migrant crisis and shock of Brexit. Whilst these ideas may be logical solutions to the EU’s financial and political problems, they risk deepening rifts within the Union that have emerged in recent years.
Macron has embraced the idea of a ‘multi-speed Europe’, with member states opting in to new initiatives rather than following the existing model of EU integration
At the Rome Summit in March, the Polish and Hungarian governments led the Eastern European charge against the idea of multi-speed Europe on the grounds that states which choose not to opt in to new initiatives due to strategic interest or domestic opposition will lose bargaining power at the European negotiating table. Macron’s suggestion this week that Poland needs to be forced into line because of what he considers transgressions of fundamental EU rules and values will surely not help in reducing the tensions that have emerged between East and West. Appeals to Warsaw and Budapest on the basis of European solidarity have been answered with stress on national and popular self-determination. Meanwhile, resentment has grown in southern Europe towards the perceived domination of the Euro by northern states and Germany in particular.
To me, tensions within the EU suggest that the future of the European project needs to be approached with cold political realism rather than federalist idealism. To avoid the departure of another member state European leaders must recognise that citizens and governments in different parts of the Union frame their thinking about Europe differently. In Eastern Europe, the EU is seen by many as a guarantor of national sovereignty in the face of potential foreign interference and as an engine of economic growth. In Britain, many saw value in the European project solely in the benefits of the single market. Harkening back to the slogan of ever-closer Union on the part of Europhiles risks alienating those who never believed in its value, just as it did in the case of the 52% who voted in favour of the UK’s departure from the EU last year.
Appeals for further integration also face the challenge that even after 60 years of institutionalised European cooperation, European identity remains relatively weak among the continent’s residents. The results of the Eurobarometer survey from November of last year show that only 6% of EU citizens consider their European identity to be more important than their national allegiance and 37% report that they would not describe themselves as European at all. In these circumstances, pushing ahead with plans which would effectively make the Eurozone resemble a federal state risks a backfire that could see Euroscepticism resurge in a wave that Macron and his allies will not be able to handle. Indeed, if the leader of En Marche wins the keys to the Élysée Palace he will do so thanks to the backing of supporters of François Fillon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, both of whom expressed support for reforming Europe in the opposite direction by increasing the power of member states. If his actions on the European stage alienate these voters, a Macron presidency could see an increase in support for a Frexit rather than the vanquishing of Euroscepticism in France.
The future of the European project needs to be approached with cold political realism rather than federalist idealism
The risks to the EU of a shock Le Pen victory in Sunday’s election are clear. If the far-right leader brought about a French departure from the organisation, the European project would struggle to survive without one of its historically key drivers. Le Pen’s vision for a Frexit France relies on a wholly misguided notion that European countries will be able to hold their own individually in a 21st-century world in which Europe’s economic advantage over the rest of the world is quickly shrinking. However, just as the Front National inaccurately and dangerously simplifies complex domestic and international issues, Macron’s idealistic drive towards a more integrated EU carries great potential risk for the future of the Union. A strong, successful and sustainable Europe requires a recognition of the limits of both nation states and support for integration. Whichever of these two outsider candidates wins the French presidency we can only hope that they quickly learn the same lesson that the infamous anti-establishment president across the Atlantic has had to face – reality bites.