Brexit contagion reaches French presidential campaign

Marine Le Pen [European Parliament]

After Brexit, the movement for referendums on EU membership has picked up momentum in other countries. It is even becoming a central theme of France’s 2017 presidential campaigns. EURACTIV France reports.

The desire to leave the EU appears to be contagious. The question has been raised in a number of other European countries following the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU, a first in the history of the bloc, whose roots go back to 1954.

The close victory for ‘Leave’ in the 23 June UK referendum was celebrated in France and the Netherlands by Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, who have since called for referendums in their own countries.

“The Brits have an instrumental and utilitarian relationship with Europe, this is not true of the founding members like the Netherlands and France, which were the driving force of the European construction,” said Manuel Lafont-Rapnouil, the director of the Paris think-tank ECFR. The variety of political currents in these countries mean that even if a referendum were organised, it would not necessarily result in the country’s exit from the Union.

For the populists, Brexit has clearly lit up the exit. But for politicians of other political colours, it provides a variety of different challenges and opportunities.

Irritated French politicians begin backing Brexit

Most French political parties officially support the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the EU. But cracks in the veneer are beginning to show, as more and more French politicians back Brexit. EURACTIV France reports.

“The exit of the United Kingdom proves that the UK was only half way in to begin with. Since the adoption of the euro, we have been waiting for them, thinking they would join us. This led to a poisonous stagnation,” said Pervenche Berès, the head of the French Socialist Party delegation in the European Parliament (S&D group).

Berès believes that this change could pave the way for the European socialists to take Europe in a new direction. Public consultation would need to take place in order to legitimise any major changes. But France’s 2017 presidential elections may supercede the need for a referendum, which is becoming less of a taboo subject.

The French socialists were left traumatised by the result of the referendum on the European Constitution in 2005. But the idea of the plebiscite has not completely died in France.

Arnaud Montebourg, a Socialist Party MP and former minister for industrial renewal, hinted this week that a public consultation was “foreseeable”. Some observers even predict that it will inevitably become a central part of the 2017 presidential election campaigns.

Treaty change or referendum?

Bruno Le Maire, a presidential candidate for the right wing Republican party, has also called for a referendum, saying it is indispensable to overhaul the European project, which should be led by France and Germany. Unimpressed by the proposal, one Republican source said Le Maire was just trying to “make a buzz” in the run-up to the election primaries.

Another Republican candidate, Alain Juppé, warned against the idea of a referendum, which he said would be tantamount to “handing the victory to Marine Le Pen on a plate”.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s response to the Brexit referendum, meanwhile, was very conservative. “It is clear to see that this feeling of rejection is shared by a large number of French citizens and many other Europeans. What the British people have said can be repeated by other people in Europe. We cannot and should not ignore it,” he said.

The Republican party leader went on to repeat his calls for a new European treaty, for which the ratification process would be similar in effect to a referendum.

Brexit stirs up Euroscepticism in the French right

Nominally a supporter of the European project, Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republican party has made increasingly frequent attacks on the European Commission, which it accuses of “pushing out the UK and letting Turkey in”. EURACTIV France reports.

“More than ever I hear people speaking in defence of the European ideal. But I want to achieve this ideal with the people of Europe, not against them,” said Sarkozy.

But the Brexit epidemic could spread to other countries in various forms. The possibility of referendums in certain countries is real, but so is the risk that governments will seek to pacify their domestic Eurosceptics by demanding more “à la carte” options and opt-outs that could undermine the European project.

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