The recent performance of the National Front in France’s local elections is symptomatic of the European electorate’s disenchantment with the EU. But strengthening the Union, not tearing it down, is the way to guarantee a better future, argues Gilles Pittoors.
Gilles Pittoors is a doctoral researcher at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.
The recent electoral victory for Marine Le Pen and her Front National in the French local elections sends another strong signal to European leaders. But which one exactly? Certain political parties across Europe, both right and left, increasingly gain votes because of their Eurosceptic views. The National Front’s successes are based for a large part on French dissatisfaction with the establishment, for which they offer some very clear and typically shortsighted solutions: Limiting immigration and restoring French sovereignty.
In particular, the National Front’s view that the EU isn’t properly working, seems to appeal, and its strong opinions about how badly the crisis has been handled are shared by a large majority of voters. Probably even those that didn’t vote for the Front would agree. Moreover, it is a widespread sentiment all over Europe. Recent Eurobarometer figures show that a little over 50% of the population is in favour of EU membership, while trust in the EU barely reaches 30%. This is also visible, for example, in the meagre turnout for the 2014 European Parliament elections, with less than half of eligible voters (42%) casting their vote.
However, are politicians really drawing the right conclusions from these figures and the electoral successes of populist anti-EU parties? Is toning the EU down and limiting its powers really what the people want? It is undeniable that many Europeans are disillusioned with the EU, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to throw it all overboard. 89% of Europeans still believe that working together is the best way for member states to overcome current challenges, and over 60% believe giving a stronger role to the EU institutions is an effective way of tackling the crisis. Joint action thus doesn’t seem to be the problem. More importantly, the EU must show its citizens that it cares and that their voices are heard. A little over half of Europeans consider the EU a democratic institution, while 70% would like to elect the President of the Commission directly. People don’t vote against the EU because they are against the EU, but because they want a different EU. An EU where their votes matter. When they vote Le Pen, they don’t think “let’s abolish the EU,” they think “listen to me!”
This shows that Europeans do not want less Europe, they want a different Europe. Who can blame them? Le Pen and others are not wrong in saying that the EU doesn’t work, but they are wrong in their attempts at fixing it. Destroying the EU is not the way forward. What is needed is more Europe and stronger institutions that are capable of efficiently making and enforcing the necessary rules. The eurozone was only partially completed, as the existence of strict fiscal rules (the Stability and Growth Pact) should have prevented a sovereign default. Of course, if nobody – not even Germany – follows the rules, but instead states choose to hide their deficits, then a crisis is inevitable. Further decentralisation of fiscal policy would not provide adequate stabilisation, as the only source of stability would be the European Central Bank, which is already doing more that it is actually capable of.
The only way forward is to opt for more Europe, to show that member states truly are capable of maintaining a long-term vision and dealing with shared problems in a joint way. The EU must listen to its people and settle the democratic deficit that has plagued it for decades. This is no time for great one-liners on the future of Europe, but for steady reform that will provide Europeans with a better future.