Author: Nancy O’Neill
President Macron’s European Gamble
Following a recent analysis by Tony Brown, Senior Fellow and founding member of the IIEA, regarding the call from European liberal leaders to reinvent the EU, this blog examines the implications and potential ramifications of President Macron’s bid to extend the En Marche! movement to the European Parliament.
“Europe would benefit from a political overhaul” were the words of French President Emmanuel Macron on 13 February 2018 at a press conference at the Élysée Palace. With the European Parliament elections due to take place over three days from 23-26 May 2019, it has become clear that President Macron is indeed actively driving such a European political overhaul himself by attempting to extend the En Marche! movement to the European Parliament.
When President Macron’s own party La République en Marche! came to power in 2017, the French President succeeded by creating a movement that transcended traditional political divisions in France. At a time when the EU is being perceived as highly fragmented, President Macron has framed the upcoming European elections as a fight for the European project itself, between anti-immigrant nationalists and pro-EU progressives. This approach aims to draw from the fringes of the more traditional blocs by tapping into the growing dissatisfaction among the mainstream left and right and build a new political group in Europe, as he did in France. Just how he intends to do so however, has not yet been made clear.
Renewing Europe’s Raison d’Être:
Writing for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Mark Leonard, described President Macron’s vision for the European Union as trying to “reconcile the irreconcilable”, by simultaneously preserving Member States’ sovereignty and deepening EU integration by “supporting supranational bodies while also allowing for more flexibility in areas where national governments, rather than Brussels, are better positioned to solve problems”.
Ultimately, President Macron’s vision for Europe depends on a pro-EU majority being secured in the European Parliament. As populist sentiment continues to spread across Europe, and as populist parties, left and right, begin to ramp up their own election campaigns, polls conducted by Politico predict that populists will capture a much larger share of seats than ever before. In this context, President Macron is looking at populism as an opportunity to unite and conquer so to speak, and En Marche! has vowed to team up with the EU’s liberal forces and create a pro-European parliament, blocking populists from gaining influence. One of these liberal forces is Albert Rivera, leader of Spain’s Ciudadanos, who said “our enemies are not the socialists and the conservatives. They are the populists”. The mechanics of this potential alliance remain unclear.
While the European Peoples’ Party (EPP) is still expected to win the most seats in the European elections, President Macron hopes that the En Marche! movement will be a part of the second largest group in the Parliament. The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), which is currently the second largest European Parliament group, is set to shrink following the loss of the British Labour Party post-Brexit, combined with the declining popularity of the German Social Democrats, the French Socialists and the Italian Democratic Party. Similarly, the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), currently the third largest parliamentary group, also stands to lose out from Brexit with the loss of the British Conservative Party. The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), which is currently the fourth largest group in the European Parliament, is predicted to gain significantly in the upcoming election, representing an opportunity for President Macron’s En Marche! movement.
All discussions regarding President Macron’s plans for the European Parliament have been characterised by speculation. While President Macron has agreed to ally with ALDE members including Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of Luxembourg Xavier Bettel, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, he will not commit to joining any existing European political party. En Marche! hopes to lead a new joint venture, rather than a single political party drawing in parties from the fringes, on both the left and the right across Europe.
Stéphane Séjourné, top strategist in Macron’s La République En Marche! party, was quoted in a New York Times interview as saying: “The worst thing would be to pick one partner per country and stick to them”. He further revealed that President Macron’s strategy was not to seal any deal until after the European Parliament elections had taken place so that they could “take the time to gauge emerging forces in Europe”.
If the French President succeeds in shaking up the EU’s political landscape, there could be a number of ramifications.
- Strengthening European Democracy:
President Macron is trying to turn the tables on populism with a rallying call for a more united Europe, and is using it as a means and opportunity to transcend traditional political divisions in the European Parliament. President Macron’s framing of the European elections is reminiscent of the French Presidential elections, in which he also fought against populism in the form of Marine Le Pen’s Front National (which has since been renamed Rassemblement National). By extending the fight against populism to the European level, President Macron may create a stronger form of European democracy than what would have prevailed otherwise, had the populist threat not been made so central to the election.
- Fostering European Identity:
It is possible that as forces across Europe come together to focus on defeating populism, a desire for more European integration will follow. In the past, European election campaigns within Member States have, for the most part, predominantly focused on national issues. Although the call for transnational lists was rejected by the European Parliament, President Macron’s style of alliance building may result in the focus being placed on European issues as a whole in the electoral campaigns across Member States. This could have the effect of creating a stronger sense of a common European identity, particularly at a time when Brexit has also arguably brought Member States closer together and made them more committed to the European project.
- Challenging the Traditional Balance of Power in European Institutions
President Macron’s project may have the effect of challenging the positions of the EPP, who have long dominated the political landscape in Brussels, and breathing new life into European leadership. Pieyre-Alexandre Anglade, an En Marche! member of the French Parliament and advisor to President Macron on EU politics, said recently: “In 2019, we need to propose a way of breaking the EPP control of Europe. […] For decades, they have held all the Presidencies. The situation of Europe today is their result clearly, and we are going to propose an alternative”. The EPP currently holds the Presidencies of the European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Council, and is expected to win the most seats again in the European election in May.
If the EPP remains the Parliament’s biggest political group, as is expected, it will likely hold the Commission Presidency as well, should the Spitzenkandidat selection process remain in place. If however, the Spitzenkandidat process is abandoned, and if President Macron’s European alliance emerges as the second biggest group in the European Parliament, someone from this alliance could be a frontrunner for the Commission Presidency. ALDE has announced it will put forward a ‘Spitzenteam’ rather than a Spitzenkandidat, in the form of a liberal transnational list of about seven names. Furthermore, the European Council has ruled out automaticity, stating that it will not necessarily appoint the candidate proposed by the biggest European party, as the Spitzenkandidat process implies. There is therefore a chance that the traditional balance of power in the main institutions may shift if President Macron’s European bid is successful.