Macron is Turning the European Parliament Elections into a Referendum on Europe
In what came as a surprise to many, French President Macron’s La République en Marche has agreed to an electoral alliance with the European Parliament’s liberal ALDE group led by Guy Verhofstadt. Just as he upended French party politics to become president, Macron could similarly take advantage of the dissolving political center to transform the campaign into a contest between pro-Europe versus Eurosceptic forces, with En Marche leading the former. This alliance could turn next May’s EP elections into a plebiscite on Europe.
The European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), which have dominated the European Parliament for decades, are in trouble. The EPP is deeply divided on how to deal with Hungary and Orbán’s Fidesz party. Though a majority of EPP parliamentarians voted in favor of initiating Article 7 procedure, the issue is far from resolved. Ultimately, the EPP will either lose members (at the very least Fidesz) or its credibility as a party that stands for European core values. While the EPP’s pro-European convictions are in question, the S&D is facing an even more existential crisis. Center-left parties are in decline all over Europe, as illustrated by yet another historic loss for a Social Democratic Party, this time in Sweden’s general election last Sunday. The French Socialists have almost completely vanished from the political landscape, partly due to Macron’s intelligent opportunism. And to add to these difficulties, Labour, the third largest member of the S&D group, will leave the Parliament altogether after the elections.
The pro-European “grand coalition,” which has controlled the European Parliament since 2014, is in a weak position and unlikely to win the majority of EP seats in 2019. It would be fair to contemplate that President Macron expects, perhaps even seeks, a realignment of the parties in the European Parliament. This could happen. The S&D is likely to be decimated in the EP elections, which would encourage many of its members to switch to a more influential and popular alternative. Similarly, the EPP could lose members that are dissatisfied with the outcome of the proceedings against Fidesz, regardless of which way that goes.
The En Marche–ALDE coalition might be Macron’s best bet. By pairing up with the most outspoken and well-known pro-European politician in the European Parliament, he could frame the EP elections as a referendum on Europe — are you for or against Europe? If this plan works, the En Marche–ALDE alliance might attract enough MEPs from other parties to form the largest EP group, just as En Marche attracted politicians from other parties in France. This move also comes at a critical moment in Macron’s presidency, as he is increasingly under pressure to deliver on European reform, his biggest campaign promise.
But why did En Marche not simply join ALDE? The answer is perhaps quite simple. President Macron wants to keep his options open until after the elections. He could still proceed with a very different strategy, one that he seemed to contemplate at the outset of his presidency: to start the European equivalent of En Marche. A website for this organization had already been set up and Pieyre-Alexandre Anglade even briefly appeared to be the face of this new movement. However, this strategy either abandoned, put on hold, or complemented by an effort to reach out to other liberal parties across Europe. The fact that plan A did not work out may indicate that Macron does not have a strong enough standing in Europe on his own. The subsequent effort to team up with other national liberal parties only resulted in an agreement between En Marche and Spain’s Ciudadanos and talks with the Dutch Democracts 66, both of which are ALDE members at the European level. The alliance with ALDE is thus not an illogical next step and could turn into a marriage of necessity, though significant differences persist between the views of many members of both parties.
Nonetheless, the alliance might turn out to be a win-win for ALDE and Macron. ALDE, and particularly Verhofstadt, will benefit from Macron’s standing and clout as pro-European “Jupiter.” This election will be Verhofstadt’s last chance to land a top job at the EU and Macron might be his best bet. The party structures of the ALDE members will promote Macron’s vision for EU reform, while keeping his options open by not joining ALDE. If Macron follows the steps of his playbook, a European electoral platform based on a survey conducted last April of French citizens may already be underway, giving the new movement a solid head-start on framing the debate before the elections in May.
If the strategy pans out, EP elections will not only be turned into a referendum on Europe, but we could witness the first ever truly contested and substantive EP election campaign. This would be a significant change compared to previous EP elections, as they have been considered until now nothing more than second-order national elections. Ultimately, Macron is seeking legitimacy for his vision for Europe beyond the French electorate. So far, his grand speeches and visions have been mostly met by unwillingness and silence by other European heads of state and governments. If this strategy is successful, he will have another lever to put pressure on them.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.