This 7 May could well mark the birth of a new Europe: becoming empowered, seeking out its true nature while remaining true to itself, taking clear-headed decisions, writes Antoine Ripoll.
Antoine Ripoll is director of the European Parliament Liaison office with US Congress, Washington DC. This article only reflects the author’s personal views.
For decades, we have been so used to the left/right divide that the election of France’s new President might appear to have happened by default, but this is an election that has the potential to substantially transform not just France, but all of Europe and beyond.
Nobody would go as far as to claim that the French people have fallen in love with a young, liberal and pro-European president; rather they have had enough of the contemptible party games and old-fashioned political practices, and they have taken power away from the extremes. In doing so, they have shown wisdom, but they are still far from having fully embraced the European cause.
No surprise there: just like Washington in the US, rightly or wrongly Brussels has been for decades the scapegoat for every ill.
Unemployment? Brussels’ fault. Social tensions and companies shutting down? The Eurocrats have struck again. Immigrants at the border? The Belgian capital is the hub of all trafficking. Terrorism? Shut the borders, quick!
And yet, a young candidate asserting that Europe, while most certainly in need of re-assessment and corrections, must more importantly be defended and strengthened, was elected President of one of the Union’s founding members. This is a small miracle and most of all a display of great political courage, given that his ten rivals were at best lukewarm and at worst decidedly anti-European, going as far as to make it a badge of honour in the hopes of reaping electoral rewards.
Of course, Mr. Macron does not have a magic wand, and by himself he will be unable to remedy all the economic, social, and existential issues that French and European citizens are struggling with.
But at least he is actually talking about the real problems and is putting forth the beginning of real solutions.
Firstly: should our issues of domestic, external and socioeconomic insecurity be tackled in a closed, Brexit/Trump fashion, or an open one? Should borders be closed down and the euro abandoned, or would it be better to keep both and consolidate them so they are sustainable in the long run? Ms. Le Pen preached “Let’s close”, the French people have chosen to open and consolidate.
France will therefore remain in both the Schengen and euro areas but it will endeavour to convince its partners that Schengen needs a common migration policy and serious intelligence exchanges if it is to survive. It will tell Berlin that without common tax, budget, and social polices the euro is doomed to fail. Will its voice be heard?
Secondly: how do we create sustainable employment and give back hope and motivation to all the men and women who no longer see the light at the end of the tunnel? Le Pen wanted to get rid of immigrants and “Give France back to the French”. The French have chosen to strengthen their competitiveness by modernising their economic model, while preserving a social balance and safety nets for the most vulnerable.
France will therefore allow the European single market to become stronger and the single currency to become more stable, but it will also try to convince its partners that competitiveness and austerity do not necessarily go hand in hand. Europe needs to come up with a new economic and social mix that isn’t just “Made in Germany”, but reflects and takes into account the needs and specificities of the majority of its member states.
Thirdly: is the European endeavour a pretext for the rampant growth of a misled capitalism that favours only those with the most money and education, or could it become an opportunity to protect the 444 million Europeans in 27 member states from the inequitable tides of globalisation? Le Pen wanted to throw away the European baby with the bath water, the French have on the contrary chosen to reaffirm their attachment to the European endeavour, an endeavour in which they want the people’s voices to be heard much more loudly than in the past.
Therefore, France will remain at the heart of the European Union and will spare the world from the distressing spectacle of Frexit coming hot on the heels of Brexit. But it will also try to give a new meaning to a misunderstood, incomplete, and all too often impotent Europe, whose own member states withhold the much needed means to fulfil the legitimate expectations of European citizens.
Just having Macron as president is not a silver bullet that will get rid of all these problems, but having Le Pen as president would have multiplied them by a factor of hundreds.
Having Macron as president, however, is a chance to reset the clocks and acknowledge the real issues to actually try and solve them; issues such as security, economic and social policies, and Europe’s place in the world.
After the Dutch, and probably before the Germans, the French people have given openness and debate another chance. They have rejected exclusion, but they have also called for sustainable solutions. If these are not forthcoming, in five years’ time, the French will fall back into obscurantism.
The French people have rejected petty arguments, petty schemes, and chummy arrangements. They have called for truth, clear-headed choices, and reason.
President Macron has heard their call. Only if his European partners also heed the call and finally square up to the challenges will Europeans together be able to stop playing Russian roulette at each election and answer the increasingly pressing calls of their own people.
Macron on his own can do little, Europe united can do much.