Patriotisme à l’européenne: Can identity politics save the EU?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

A figurine of French President-elect Emmanuel Macron on display in a workshop at San Gregorio Armeno street in Naples, southern Italy, 09 May 2017. Via San Gregorio Armeno is a street famous for its shops selling hand-crafted nativity scenes and all kind of painted figurines and statuettes. [Cesare Abbate / EPA]

If identity politics are here to stay, Emmanuel Macron’s win in the French presidential election is the proof that far from being toxic, the European brand can actually carry the day, write Tom Parker and Leanda Barrington-Leach.

Tom Parker is CEO of Cambre Associates, a Brussels-based consultancy. Leanda Barrington-Leach is Director of Foreign Policy at Cambre Associates.

As President-elect Emmanuel Macron took to the stage Sunday night (7 May) to the exultant march of the European anthem, Europhiles were not just relieved, but more optimistic than they have been in a long while.

Macron still has an important hurdle to overcome with the legislative elections.Nationalist populists have lost a key battle, but the war is far from over. The EU still faces Brexit and needs to fundamentally reinvent itself in order to survive and prosper – no easy task.

But when was the last time a leader of the stature of the President of France expressed such overt pride and belief in the EU? Surprising many, Macron successfully harnessed identity politics to push an open, internationalist agenda.

As the political landscape that has dominated western democracies for the last century crumbles in the face of populist pressure, Macron’s win represents the seedlings of a renewal. Now, the key question is whether France and Europe nurture its growth.

The challenge

The choice presented to the French people on 7 May could not have been starker. The visions of the two candidates reflected a divide that played out last year in votes in the UK and US – albeit with a very different outcome. Still, a third of French citizens voted for the far-right Marine Le Pen. An additional third either abstained or cast blank or spoilt ballots. Although he took the lead in the first round, Macron’s final victory owes much to voters rallying to block the Front National.

In his victory speech, Macron recognised that he was taking the helm of a divided nation and took care to stress unity. He will be well aware that his win gives France a breathing space of five years, and that if he cannot turn the tide, a far-right victory will be all the more likely next time around.

Turning the tide will depend first and foremost on delivering employment and security. Fortunately, the European economy is on the upswing. However, to make the changes he has promised will drive growth and jobs, Macron will need to harness a parliamentary majority. The established parties performed badly in the personality-centred presidential vote, but the dynamics are very different when it comes to choosing local representatives. Macron has a month to transform his movement into a locally-entrenched and networked party capable of competing for all 577 parliamentary seats. Stalemate is likely to fuel further discontent and boost extremist voices in future leadership races.

Secondly, Macron’s promise was that France would prosper within a strong European and international order. Here, the incoming President will have more room for manoeuvre, but the obstacles are also significant. Competing national and institutional interests and priorities will challenge his vision for Europe. The EU’s approval ratings are at historic lows. Anti-globalisation is a byword of the times. If the EU fails to reform and regain the trust of its citizens, Macron’s star will fade fast.

A renewal

Luckily, he can count on a rising tide of support in this endeavour. Leaders in Brussels and across Europe are looking for ways to beat back a populist agenda which, while on the face of it built around exclusionary nationalism, increasingly spans borders. Consider for instance how the British Leave campaign actively supported Le Pen and portrays Macron’s victory as a disaster for France and Europe.

Macron offered an alternative brand of optimistic patriotism which directly counters the negative, exclusionary nationalist narrative by championing the EU and internationalism. This approach caught the spotlight already in the Dutch elections in March, when Jesse Klaver, the 30-year-old leader of the GreenLeft, harnessed demands to protect Dutch culture to put forward a vision of national identity based on tolerance, openness and internationalism that he claimed was under attack from the right. Klaver told his supporters: “Stand for your principles. Be straight. Be pro-refugee. Be pro-European. We’re gaining momentum in the polls. And I think that’s the message we have to send to Europe. You can stop populism.” The GreenLeft surged from four to 14 seats.

Macron’s overt patriotisme à l’européenne propelled this movement into the major league. If identity politics are here to stay, Macron’s win is the proof that they can be used for building new identities as well as reasserting “nativist” tendencies. The French election result is also proof that, far from being toxic, the European brand can actually carry the day.

Winds of change

Although the EU has suffered a steadily declining fall in popularity, change can come fast. Barely nine months before electing the country’s most pro-European leader since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1974, 61% of the French population said they viewed the EU unfavourably. The seeds are there. They include the vision, the willingness to break from business as usual, the successful mobilisation of symbols and alliances, and the ability to tap into new communications techniques.

The EU reform process announced on the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome in March is an opportunity to nurture these seedlings. European citizens want an EU which is more in touch and more responsive to their needs. They want an EU they can identify with, which represents them and delivers on their priorities. This will require structural change, but it will also require leaders and a narrative that can bridge the national/Brussels divide. Macron has lit the path. Now, more need to follow.

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