Will Emmanuel Macron’s election as French President herald the start of a European Spring, or is it the swan song of the Europhiles? Peter Vanham, a global leadership fellow at the World Economic Forum, tackles this question in this opinion piece (The views expressed below are his own and not those of the World Economic Forum.)
Since Emmanuel Macron’s party is France’s (self-declared) only pro-European Union force, dreaming of an ever closer union certainly makes sense again. Moreover, Macron beat his EU-skeptic opponent Marine Le Pen by a comfortable 32-point margin in the French presidential elections, providing the biggest democratic boost for Europe in years.
But despite this vote of confidence in the heart of Europe, Europhoria is premature, as Bart Haeck argues in his newly released book After The Hangover: How We Are Losing Our Faith In the European Union.
Politicians on the left and right, union representatives and employers in Belgium, The Netherlands, and France, who were previously unconditional in their support of the union, have in recent years become much more critical and uncertain about the 60-year old institution, he writes. What those disappointed groups of stakeholders miss is a coherent answer to Europe’s many crises, and a social union alongside the political and economic one. It is a worrisome trend in the core countries of the EU that will outlast victories like those of Macron in France and Prime Minister Mark Rutte in the Netherlands.
Haeck, who follows the ins and outs of Europe as the European Union (EU) correspondent for Brussels-based daily De Tijd, argues there are four leading reasons why the EU has lost some of its most ardent supporters in recent years. They are the Greek debt crisis, Brexit, unchecked labor migration and the refugee crisis. This “polycrisis,” as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker calls it, shook Europe’s institutions to their core and led to disappointment, anxiety and a renewed search of what Europe should look like among its believers.
“Leading reasons Europe lost some ardent supporters … are the Greek debt crisis, Brexit, unchecked labor migration and the refugee crisis.”
The Greek debt crisis, to start with, caused many EU-minded social-democratic and green party politicians to question whether what they saw in action was their Europe. While many Greeks were out of a job, out of money and even sometimes out of food, the European heads of state forced a strict austerity plan on the Greek government to prevent it from going bankrupt. Many of Europe’s left-leaning politicians had previously been ardent supporters of the European project. Now they felt the EU and its leaders were no longer representative of them.
But the feeling of discontentment about Europe’s solution was equally present among many politicians in favor of the austerity plan. In Germany, The Netherlands, and other “northern” nations politicians like Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaüble of Germany, showed some buyer’s remorse: For the first time ever, they openly wondered whether it wouldn’t have been better to give up on Greece as a euro-member. It also meant they questioned the goal of the European project to create an ever closer union among its members.
Brexit caused the initial fracture among Europhiles to widen further. For decades, Europe has had difficulties deciding what it really wanted to be: a deeply integrated federation with a lot of central power in Brussels, a looser confederation with decentralized power in the capitals, or a social and ecological union, mainly focused on labor and ecological issues that transcend national borders. As the British voted to leave an EU whose perceived federal direction they disliked, citizens in other member countries wondered whether they even agreed among themselves that the EU should become an “ever closer union.”
A third issue causing divergence among Europe’s citizenry is one that never quite created an acute crisis, hovering instead over a longer period of time: the free movement of labor across Europe. It has been an EU pillar for decades, but it only really came to the forefront when in 2004 the European Union expanded to the east. The average incomes of workers in countries like Romania, Hungary and Poland lay far below those of their counterparts in Western Europe. Opening the EU labor market to them caused many German, French, British, Dutch, and Belgian workers and unions to fear the impact on their local jobs and salaries.
It turned out to be a valid worry, particularly in the construction and transport sector, each responsible for millions of jobs in Europe’s industrial heartland. Truckers and builders from Eastern Europe did not simply work for a lower wage. Through loopholes in the rules on independent contractors and “detached” employees, they often also paid lower social security and pension contributions than their Western peers. This caused union leaders and workers to become more openly critical of the EU and its rules.
The final reason why some formerly pro-European forces now question their allegiance is the refugee crisis. During the summer of 2015 more than a million refugees from Syria, Iraq and other conflict-ridden countries arrived in Europe, following several decisions in Greece, Hungary and Germany that caused the Schengen Area — the agreement for border-free passage among 26 European states — to also be open to all migrants once they had entered the area. Once again, the way the EU dealt with the crisis caused a lot of frustration and disappointment.
Conservative politicians like Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, argued for a general “pushback” policy, stopping asylum-seekers from ever reaching Europe’s Mediterranean coast by intercepting them. Progressive politicians more often favored a more forgiving and humane approach, opening the borders in times of crisis. Both realized Europe had previously not set up the right procedures and adequate resources to cope with mass migration in times of crisis. As a compromise was finally reached with Turkey about the temporary settling of refugees in camps, processing their requests, and pushing back traffickers at sea, no one came out convinced the EU had handled the crisis well.
It is against this backdrop of increasing uncertainty about the goal and direction of Europe in its heartland that the “pro-EU” Emmanuel Macron nevertheless managed to be elected as president of France. Over in Germany, voters later this year will elect almost without a doubt either Angela Merkel, the de facto leader of Europe, or Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament. Is it a contradiction, or is it a sign that Europeans are still pro-EU but increasingly uncertain they will remain in favor of it?
“Brexit caused the initial fracture among Europhiles to widen further.”
The Eurobarometer, the EU survey that measures the attitudes of Europeans towards key issues, reveals the latter option is more likely. In November 2016, 53% of Europeans interviewed in the poll believed that being a member of the EU is a good thing for their country. That majority remained stable compared with eight years ago. An even larger group — 71% — also believe there are more things uniting Europeans than dividing them. But at the same time, people didn’t think the future for the EU was as bright as the present. Fifty-four percent of respondents in the survey said that in the EU things were headed in the wrong direction.
It leads to a double-edged conclusion. On the one hand, it shows that continental Europeans are clearly not as discontented about the EU as their British peers are. A Brexit scenario is much less likely in the short run in any core European country than it was in Britain.
But on the other hand, it is time to realize that the allegiance many citizens, politicians and workers from the EU’s founding nations had in the union is at acute risk of evaporating. Indeed, if Europe wants to flourish in the future, it will need to address the lethal flaws that were revealed during the Greek debt crisis, Brexit, the unchecked labor migration and the refugee crisis.
Macron’s election doesn’t change that. But it does offer renewed hope that Europhoria will eventually prevail over Euro-pessimism.