As EU elections near, Macron looks to forge a game-changing alliance

John Bryan, Writer on European Affairs

24 October 2018

The Hemicycle of the European Parliament in Strasbourg during a plenary session in 2014.

The Hemicycle of the European Parliament in Strasbourg during a plenary session in 2014.


 

Elections to the European Parliament are seven months away, and as expected battle lines are being drawn. However, this contest will take on a different character than before. Rather than simply being a traditional struggle between left and right, this contest will put into question the European project itself.

Populists, particularly far-right nationalists, have attempted to storm establishment politics across the continent, with varying degrees of success. Many view the upcoming elections as a culmination of these efforts. However, there are stirrings of a new development in the centre, which has the potential to directly challenge the populists on the issues of Europe and European values.

Emmanuel Macron, the French President and leader of the movement-turned-party La République En Marche! (The Republic On The Move) has been in strategic talks during September and October with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, as well as other prominent liberals such as the Prime Ministers of Belgium and Luxembourg Charles Michel and Xavier Bettel. The aim of these talks has been to lay the groundwork for an alliance between Macron’s party and the European parliamentary group Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). On October 10th Politico reported that these talks have been successful, and that a tentative agreement has been made.

To understand the implications here, some context is required. In 2017, Macron’s party emerged from virtually nowhere to create a centrist force which drew support from both the traditional left and right. It eventually went on to overcome the inertial far-right National Front (now rebranded the National Rally) in both the presidential and parliamentary elections.

The ALDE is a parliamentary group in the EU occupying the centre of the spectrum. These types of groups are complicated, but in essence they are parties of parties – coalitions of like-minded parties or independents that agree to wield power as one in EU institutions.

Most major national parties in Europe are members of one of these groups, and have their members campaign to be MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) on behalf of their respective groups. However, Macron has been hesitant to commit to joining one of these groups, and his party has refused to join ALDE as simply another constituent party. Rather, this new alliance will likely start off informally, with both sides campaigning under a common platform. If it progresses toward formal unification, it would be under a new banner.

Under this arrangement, the liberals of Europe hope to become the second-largest group in parliament (they are currently the fourth largest). The conservative European People’s Party (EPP) is likely to be the largest group.

This goal is certainly within the realm of possibility. ALDE is already home to other burgeoning centrist stars who have mobilized pro-EU support in recent years. One example is Albert Rivera in Spain, whose new Ciudadanos (Citizens) party has found success in arguing for a unified and European Spain. With En Marche! Poised to pick up most of the pro-EU vote in France, the liberals could be a force to be reckoned with.

Who does this new coalition threaten? In one sense, it is a direct challenge to the EPP, who has dominated EU leadership in recent years. Under this view, the liberals are reformers looking to usurp the hegemony of old-school intuitional conservatives. In particular, they have shown hostility toward the process of nominating a candidate for European Commission President, called Spitzenkandidat, which has been criticized as undemocratic.

However, a different interpretation holds them as defenders of the establishment, looking to repel the populists who are skeptical or outright hostile toward the EU. It is possible for both of these views to be correct. By the liberals’ logic, in order to conserve the European experiment, the EU needs to reform – or risk decaying. The way to combat populists, they argue, is to take the fight directly to them by offering up an alternative vision for a better Europe, rather than an appeal to the status-quo.

While these pro-EU forces attempt to create a unified stance, so do the populists. They view the upcoming elections in similarly black-and-white terms. Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, whose far-right Northern League shares power in Rome, argues that the election will pit the defenders of national sovereignty against the proponents of a bureaucracy where nations go to die.

It may surprise some to note that the person most involved right now in unifying Europe’s populists is none other than former Trump campaign chief strategist Steve Bannon. He has co-founded an organization called The Movement, designed to aid right-wing nationalist forces across the EU. Ultimately, the plan is to create a new parliamentary group after the elections. Salvini has signed on to The Movement, at least insofar as it offers a “loose association.”

Bannon’s plan has run into trouble, however, principally in the area of recruiting other big-name populist parties to the cause. For example, Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, one of only a handful of European far-right nationalist parties to be in government, is unwilling to work with Bannon. In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has also disregarded the notion of joining Bannon’s proposed movement. In both cases, the parties acknowledged that while they might share common ideas with Bannon, they nevertheless view independence from foreign actors as paramount. As it turns out, European nationalists have trouble taking orders from Americans.

As it stands, Europe’s populists are for the most part spread out across three parliamentary groups: the European Conservatives and Reformists, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, and Europe of Nations and Freedom.

Nevertheless, they will surely offer a serious challenge when the election rolls around this May. Both the liberals and the populists are looking toward the elections as a proving ground for their own visions of Europe. Success for the former may mean reform and an “ever closer union.” Success for the latter could cripple the EU’s mandate. Moreover, whomever is seen as having won the elections, in relative terms, would have the benefit of momentum leading into further elections on the national level going forward. The battle for Europe’s soul is shaping up, and the results could have ramifications for decades to come.