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As France votes, Europe holds its breath

When President Emmanuel Macron shocked France last month by calling a snap election, he was gambling with the future of Europe as well as his own country.

While much depends on the second round of voting on Sunday, it already seems clear that Macron’s role as a driver of European integration will be significantly diminished.

The two most likely scenarios – a government led by the far-right National Rally (RN) of Marine Le Pen or a hung parliament – would present unprecedented challenges for the European Union.

The big fear for the EU’s traditional political mainstream is an outright RN victory, forcing Macron to “co-habit” with a government hostile to his vision of European sovereignty.

Even a parliament with no overall majority, resulting in an unwieldy coalition or parties cooperating case-by-case, would deprive Macron of a government committed to his policies.

In either case, a heavy question mark would hang over some of his boldest initiatives – from joint EU borrowing to fund defence spending by doubling the EU budget to deploying French troops inside Ukraine to train Kyiv’s forces.

As France and Germany traditionally form the engine that drives the 27-nation European Union, the bloc could face a double dose of political paralysis as its two most important pro-EU leaders would be on the back foot.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz saw his party crushed in European Parliament elections last month, is struggling to hold his coalition together and is braced for strong far-right showings in upcoming regional polls.

“Macron is severely weakened at home, which will have consequences for his position in Brussels as well as for the Franco-German relationship,” said Elizabeth Kuiper, associate director at the European Policy Centre think tank.

While Europe’s far-right parties are still far from their goal of taking over the EU and repatriating powers back to the national level, they have wind in their sails. They made gains in the European Parliament elections, where Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni’s party was a big winner.

A new Dutch government with far-right participation has just taken office. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has taken over the EU’s rotating presidency and announced the formation of a new pan-European “patriotic alliance”.

“A weaker France and Germany coupled with a stronger Italy and Hungary clearly will shape the future of the EU,” said Kuiper.

MACRON PUSHBACK

Macron has told EU counterparts France will continue to play a leading role in the bloc, with a big share of the votes in the European Council of EU leaders and his party at the heart of the pro-EU coalition in the European Parliament, French officials say.

“France remains France, with its weight,” said one.

But diplomats say much of the nitty-gritty of EU policy work is done in meetings of government ministers – and the next French government looks certain to be at the very least less Macron-friendly than the current one.

Should the RN’s candidate for prime minister, 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, form a government, some diplomats wonder if he may try to adopt an at least semi-cooperative stance with EU bodies – taking a page from Meloni’s playbook.

But the party’s policies and statements suggest clashes with both Macron and Brussels would be inevitable.

Le Pen has said an RN-led government would nominate France’s next European commissioner – a key role in the EU executive. But that is traditionally the president’s prerogative – and Macron has already signalled he wants to keep incumbent Thierry Breton.

The RN also wants France to get a rebate from the EU budget, something the EU is highly unlikely to provide. And while the RN’s economic policies have changed repeatedly in recent weeks, they may fall foul of the EU’s fiscal rules.

Karel Lannoo, chief executive of the Centre for European Policy Studies think tank, said initiatives to boost European economic competitiveness such as an EU capital markets union would also be at risk.

“The problem for the EU is that if it doesn’t have member states strongly supporting it, then it’s very hard (to move forward),” he said.

Among diplomats in EU hub Brussels, some are in “wait-and-see” mode, given the outcome of the second round is uncertain.

One described the mood as “nervous but calm”. But some Eastern Europeans expressed more anxiety – and concern that Macron had unnecessarily put Europe’s future at risk in reaction to a defeat in the European Parliament elections.

Eastern European leaders have been encouraged over the past year as Macron became bolder in support for Ukraine and more willing to question the West’s “red lines” with Russia.

“His words were music to our ears … That was so recent and now it is gone,” lamented one senior official from the region.

“It is looking very serious,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“My fear is that President Macron has definitely overplayed his hand.”

(Reuters)

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Last Updated: 13th Jul 2024