Is a “European Spring” in the making, just as the EU prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary in Rome? In this opinion piece, Peter Vanham, global leadership fellow at the World Economic Forum, considers this question as he assesses a number of recent developments in Europe. (The views expressed in this opinion piece are his own and not those of the World Economic Forum.)
In The Hague last week, Prime Minister Mark Rutte fended off his populist contender Geert Wilders in the Dutch elections. In Edinburgh, meanwhile, Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon called for a new Scottish referendum to leave Britain. Those are two good news events for the Europhile elite. They mean the “pro-Europe” camp is regaining momentum after Britain’s vote to “Leave” the EU late last spring.
But even two swallows don’t make a summer. The EU won’t really be able to breathe a sigh of relief until April 23, or at the latest May 7, when the French vote for a new president in their elections. If a pro-European candidate doesn’t win there, the European project may instead be forced into a long, cold winter, and nationalist, protectionist and populist agendas may once again take the upper hand.
Fortunately for those who favor Europe, the alternative of a moderate pro-European French President remains more likely, and with it the outlook for a strong core Europe, ready for its next big stress test: the Brexit negotiations.
When Europe’s leaders head for Rome this weekend, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the EU’s founding Treaty of Rome, they are facing latter-day Visigoths at the gates of the union. Populists are on the rise throughout the 28-member bloc, calling in question the very ideals the European Union was built on, and threatening the future of Europe as we know it. In that environment, Scottish independence initiatives and the Dutch elections were comforting news events.
That a possible Scottish independence is now seen as “good news” in Europe may be surprising to some. Just two years ago, the first referendum on Scottish independence by Sturgeon’s predecessor, Alex Salmond, was largely dismissed by the same European elite. EU leaders wanted to maintain a united UK in Europe, and certainly not set a precedent for a further break-up of nations.
But “the times they are a-changin’.” The British decision to leave the EU turned the tables for Scottish independence. Last time, Scotland was told it would be put at the back of the queue for EU membership. These days, European leaders, such as the European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, say Scotland would have a right to stay in the EU if it wants to.
If Europe’s leaders are suddenly excited about Scottish independence, it may be more for tactical reasons than for their genuine sympathy for the Highlands. It is the U.K. government, more than the Scottish one, for whom the message of a Scottish-EU welcome may be intended. The Scottish question is just one of the many cards the EU leaders may play to make sure it gains the upper hand when the UK starts the official procedure to leave the European Union.
If the good news from across the channel is to be interpreted with caution, the election news from the Netherlands was more wholeheartedly embraced around Europe. To cheers and many sighs of relief, Mark Rutte, the liberal Prime Minister, successfully fended off Geert Wilders, his anti-immigrant, populist rival. It was seen as a turning of the anti-EU tide. “Congratulations to my friend Mark Rutte,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker wrote on Twitter, continuing in Dutch with “let’s build a strong Europe together.”
Still, the Dutch “pro-Europe” victory was perhaps somehow pyrrhic. Even as the populist Wilders was once leading in the polls, he was not expected to come close to the premiership: He never polled higher than 25%. In the Dutch multi-party system with proportional representation, he would have therefore never been able to overthrow the current coalition led by Rutte’s Liberal Party.
The conclusion, then, from the news coming from Scotland, the U.K. and the Netherlands is no more than a round of shadow boxing ahead of the main event that will determine the future of Europe: the French presidential elections, run in two rounds on April 23 and May 7. There are two major reasons for that.
“If Europe’s leaders are suddenly excited about Scottish independence, it may be more for tactical reasons than for their genuine sympathy for the Highlands.”
First, Marine Le Pen, the populist contender in those elections, has a much bigger chance to win the elections than Wilders had in The Netherlands, and has a much wider appeal.
Le Pen is very likely to advance to the second-round final vote with Emmanuel Macron, the leading centrist candidate. Both politicians poll at about 25% currently, well ahead of other contenders. In the second round, Le Pen is expected receive only around 35% of the votes. That is well below the poll numbers of 2016’s seminal election winners: the “Leave” campaign in the U.K., and Donald Trump in the U.S. elections. But a terror attack or political bombshell might still make Le Pen a real contender in that final round on May 7.
The reasons for that are multifold, but the fact that France was the European focal point for terror attacks in recent years, and has for years had a complicated relation to immigrants, certainly plays a major role. On immigration, Le Pen is less of a hardliner than her father — who founded the National Front she now leads and is a known negationist — but she still stands for a right wing “scapegoat populism.” [Negationism is sometimes referred to as denialism and suggests a fact-free re-writing of history. Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is sometimes referred to as a negationist for downplaying aspects of the Holocaust – he has referred to the gas chambers used in concentration camps as a “detail” of history.] It contrasts with the left-wing populism that dominates in Southern European states like Spain and Greece.
Second, a possible election of Le Pen in France would be much more fatal to the European project than Brexit.
The EU’s ‘Motor’
France, unlike the U.K., was a founding member of the EU just as The Netherlands was. But more than The Netherlands, it was also the real motor behind the European integration, together with Germany. French politicians, particularly former EU Commission President Jacques Delors, are credited with shaping the European institutions we know today. Others, such as former President Francois Mitterrand, laid the foundations for the Franco-German tandem.
“A possible election of Le Pen in France would be much more fatal to the European project than Brexit.”
That tandem is certain to fall apart with a Le Pen presidency. While she does not wish for France to leave the EU entirely, in a BFMTV interview she expressed her desire to withdraw France from the monetary union, to have it regain control of the borders, and to stop the expansion of Europe. In the “ever closer union” Europe was meant to be, such a stance means the end of the European project as we know it. Le Pen’s positions therefore are also diametrically opposed to those of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Commission President Juncker.
But despite the above-stated reasons, France is still unlikely to become the next populist domino to fall. It is more likely that a moderately pro-European candidate will win the French elections with a more or less comfortable margin (65% to 35% according to projections). In that case, the European integration project has another chance to do what it does best: grow through crises, in this case Brexit. It may then take another two winters to bite through the British apple, but perhaps March 29, 2019, will really herald the start of a European Spring.