* I hate all politics. I don’t like either political party. One should not belong to them – one should be an individual, standing in the middle. Anyone that belongs to a party stops thinking. Ray Bradbury
Despite fundamental political differences, French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán have three things in common: They all understood early on that the European Parliamentary election on 23-26 May 2019 could present a watershed moment in European history.
Equally, every one of them has publicly emerged as a chief protagonist in a polarized “battle of narratives” focused on the polls. Most consequentially, all three of them are perceived to have the potential to shake up their respective political families and, with them, the balance of power in the European Parliament (EP): Macron among liberals, Orbán among conservatives, and Salvini among parties of the far right.
- Just as he had managed during the 2017 French presidential election, Emmanuel Macron has been attempting to overcome the left-right divide on a European scale.
- By creating a movement beyond party structures from the center, La République En Marche (LREM) is seeking to end the dominance of the two camps – the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Party of European Socialists (PES) – which Macron judges inept for directing the EU in the future.
- Matteo Salvini’s declared mission is to unite the fractured right-wing euroskeptic camp behind himself as a leading figure. He also aspires to create a Nationalist International in the EP, which could then have sufficient power to re-shape the nature of European integration.
- Meanwhile, Viktor Orbán’s strategy seems to consist of the following: Keeping his options open, remaining within the EPP for the moment and, importantly, creating an informal coalition across party lines with other nationalists to block new EU legislations which would go against illiberal governments or limit the power of nation-states.Unlike other players who also claim to reshape the next European Parliament, such as the Greens or left-wing parties, Macron, Salvini and Orbán are heads of state and government (or an informal head, as in the case of Salvini). Therefore, they are seen as the key players in the fundamental realignment of the European party system following the EP election.
However, a deeper look into recent developments shows that Emmanuel Macron has, so far, failed to get on board his own population and his European partners in his mission to revolutionize the European Parliament. His potential to revamp the European elections in the same way he did the French presidential election is very slim. His attempt of framing the European elections as a battle between pro- and anti-European forces – between “progressives and nationalists” – appears to have backfired: For the most part, it has played into the hands of the camps led by Salvini and Orbán.
Although previous attempts by populist right-wing parties to form a euroskeptic alliance in the European Parliament have not been very successful, one should not underestimate Salvini’s dedication, systematic approach and political strength. At the very least, he could join forces with Orbán to create a loose union of strong nation-states to provide a more favorable environment for countries weary of the EU allegedly “dictating” their values and rules.
Even if the overall balance of power in the EP remains tilted toward pro-European forces, enhanced influence and coordination among anti-EU populist MEPs will have serious implications for the interaction among EU institutions. In this sense, Salvini and Orbán appear to be the key players in the fundamental realignment of the European party system on the political right.
Emmanuel Macron’s plan for Europe did not quite work out the way he had hoped: Partners, notably Germany, took rather small steps toward compromises on EU reforms, and only after a long time. In France, growing unrest and protest risk paralyzing the president. It appears that Macron’s promise to offer a counter-narrative against populism is backfiring and further deepening the divisions between pro- and anti-Europeans; that is, between those at ease with a globalized France and those who feel left behind. These gaps will likely become even more conspicuous during the European election.
- Macron set the tone of his European campaign in August 2018 and declared the elections as a vote between “progressives” and “nationalists”.1
- In light of the slumping popularity Macron is witnessing amid the yellow vests movement and beyond, his strategy is clearly past its prime.
- Social justice is the utmost concern for the majority of French people, and they will judge the campaign by LREM’s capacity to put this topic at the top of their European agenda. Any kind of polarization risks fueling the right and left wing’s intention to make the elections a “referendum” against Macron.
The Strategy of Confronting Ideologies
Ever since 2016, when Emmanuel Macron set out his ideas for reforming the EU at the beginning of his presidential campaign, pro-Europeans all over the continent acclaimed him as a European visionary: After years, when political leaders seemed trapped in the minutiae of everyday crisis management, Macron offered an impassioned plea for the EU.
Evoking symbols of European identity, he argued with a mixture of emotiveness and concrete proposals, such as a eurozone budget, a common European asylum office, better defense cooperation, or massive investment in digitalization and artificial intelligence. By linking the promises of far-reaching economic and social reforms in France with the ambition to advance renewal at European level, he placed himself at the forefront of the European debate, before he became increasingly absorbed by internal turmoil since November 2018.
Defying the nationalist trend, he is defending the necessity of further European integration as part of the core national interest of every European state. His victory against Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the far right, was hence interpreted as a victory of Europeans against nationalists.
Based on this narrative, Macron chose an approach of confrontation as Orbán and Salvini had done earlier. Presented as antidotes to an open Europe, they feature as the only two politicians in an official video clip published by the French government to encourage citizens to vote in May 2019.
Macron’s strategy is based on two assumptions: First, continuing the course of his presidential campaign, he is seeking to rally important parts of the electorate against his main adversary, the president of the extreme-right Rassemblement National (RN), Marine Le Pen. Second, he envisages his movement LREM to head an alliance strong enough to dismantle the existing grand coalition system in the European Parliament. Acting in concert with other like-minded centrist parties, such as Spain’s Ciudadanos and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), would effectively make him the king-maker of the new President of the European Commission, and allow him to decisively shape European politics.
The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: dgap.org