If, as is generally predicted, Emmanuel Macron wins the presidency of France in the second round, on May 7th, there will be much relief in Brussels, and Strasbourg. The alternative would reduce Brexit to a side show. For at least another week, relief will be at bay as tension remains high, with the possibility of a third ‘catastrophe’ following the Brexit and Trump votes.
Early polling after the first round put the National Front on 38% for the second round, which would be about 17 million votes, if everyone eligible voted. If the turnout is 75% then Marine Le Pen can expect to receive about 13 million votes, on that basis. Of course she says she expects to win, for which she would need about 18.5 million votes, again assuming a 75% turnout. Even at 13 million that’s a lot of people who wish that France would leave the eurozone and, we can assume, would also want France to leave the EU.
If the result goes according to poll results, we can expect relief to be accompanied by a fresh burst of complacency. What we should not expect is either a push for significant reform of the EU agenda or a more intelligent analysis of what persuades so many French (and other) voters to opt for radical alternatives. For the time being the French-German project will continue, untroubled by its citizens.
Of course its citizens are the EU’s biggest problem, although its leaders are reluctant to acknowledge this, let alone show that they take them seriously. Jean-Claude Juncker frequently blames his member states, by which he means their governments, but he doesn’t seem to realise that his citizens are also their citizens, and at national level they have to be managed more carefully. He is protected from this inconvenience by the EU’s constitution.
J-C argues that national governments should do more to promote the virtues of the EU. It is worth recalling what happened to David Cameron when he tried that. A well-funded, government-supported campaign, which focused on the economic benefits of EU membership (at least as far as the government saw these) failed to convince a majority of UK voters to support him, although the general view was that the forecast economic downturn would swing doubters to the Remain camp.
Much expert ink has been spilt over the question of why a majority of voters should have acted against their own economic interest (as they were told repeatedly), with no convincing conclusion coming forth. No one can be sure whether the widespread antagonism to the EU and the euro across the continent has a similar explanation in each country. What we do see is a belligerent reaction to the Brexit vote from the EU, which demonstrates that fear of similar outcomes elsewhere overrides any sense of pride or even of purpose in the future of the project.
At one end of a peculiar spectrum Marine Le Pen has the fervent support of perhaps one-third of the French electorate. She wants France to leave the eurozone and hold a referendum on whether to stay in the EU. At the other end Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement leads the polls in Italy and also wants to leave the eurozone and the EU. In between, or off the scale, are popular, eu-sceptical movements in many EU countries. UKIP may be self-destructing in Britain but many EU member states have thriving popular movements that are challenging the status quo.
The EU is facing a crisis and has survived many already. However, what the project faces now is not a financial, political or bureaucratic set-back. It faces – and fails to face up to – a level of discontent that is unprecedented. This was not unforeseen though and the founders, cleverer than the current incumbents, understood that ‘the people’ would have much to object to in a project the goal of which is to deprive them of the right to remove a government that a majority dislike.
That is not an accidental goal but a requirement deriving from the logic of its ideology, ‘ever closer union’, or to put it more directly, a united states of Europe; a central government of the region over and above the annoyingly volatile and unpredictable governments of the member states. It is this fundamental ideology that is sacrosanct, and is the reason that sensible reforms to the foundations of the EU cannot be discussed.
Macron is young and perhaps sees the possibility of a follow-on career with the EU after a spell as President of France. He is already taking a hard line on the conditions the EU should set for the Brexit negotiations. This line, reinforced in recent modifications to the ‘Divorce Guidelines’ in the run-up to their approval by the European Council, focuses almost exclusively on the perceived need to prevent the governments of other member states from considering leaving the single currency or the EU. The strategy may be effective in scaring national governments into submission but the effect on EU citizens is more likely to be further erosion of respect and trust in the project, thereby hastening its end.
Again we can point to the British experience for evidence. Despite a few concessions and ‘Project Fear’, the British government failed to keep the electorate in line. It is surprising that EU and other leaders are so disdainful of citizens that they are prepared to ignore widespread discontent and continue to push the line that leaving will hurt, while failing to offer convincing reasons to love the project. Increasing numbers of citizens fail to see the supposed benefits of membership and while our leaders neglect this failure the EU project will remain at risk.