This weekend, world leaders met for the annual Security Conference in Munich. However, at this year’s edition nothing quite seemed like it used to be. It was not really about security. Neither was it about defence cooperation or NATO. No, this year was all crisis mode.
After all, the conference offered the first chance of a meeting between many European politicians and a high-ranking member of the Trump cabinet, Vice President Mike Pence. The American VP furthermore had a private meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko sitting next door. This image alone should give us a pretty good idea what the atmosphere must have been like in there.
However, the conference was also about the ongoing crisis of the European Union, as has become clear in statements leading up to the event.
“How close the European project stands to the edge of the precipice”
In the run-up to the Security Conference, Norbert Röttgen, chair of the German Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee used dramatic words to describe the current state of the EU. “We just need one more election to go wrong, and the EU will no longer be what it is today” he proclaimed, aiming at the prospect of Marine Le Pen winning this year’s presidential elections in France. “This shows you how close the European project stands to the edge of the precipice.”
He did not bring this up in connection with the Security Conference for no reason. The elections in France were almost certainly amongst the hot topics discussed behind the scenes in Munich. After all, these elections embody something way more important: their outcome is an indication for the state of the EU as a whole. But is it really that bad? Is Europe really this close to the brink? I wouldn’t necessarily say so.
Le Pen’s road to the Élysée
For years now, Le Pen’s Front National has been deemed to take over the presidency in France. Now, it only seems consequential that after the year of Brexit and Trump, this might now be the time. But while this conclusion may seem tempting, past experience from France tells us otherwise. Only a little more than a year ago, France held regional elections, where the Front National did fantastically almost everywhere in the country in the first round. However, the party couldn’t win a single region in the run-off, as centre-right and centre-left voters joined forces and voted strategically.
There are strong indications they would do so again. A year and a half is not that long a time, even in times of Brexit and Trump. Additionally, with Emmanuel Macron there is a strong mainstream candidate who is reasonably electable in both conservative and liberal circles. Norbert Röttgen’s worst fear might therefore just not become reality.
The crisis could develop into the worst-case scenario still
But of course, it could just do. It is nonetheless far from impossible for Marine Le Pen to actually win, which would, in this I agree with Röttgen, send shockwaves across the European Union. But would it doom the whole project? I think that view is highly oversimplified. Even if Le Pen won the elections and wanted to take France out of the Eurozone, Schengen or even the EU altogether, she would at this point have to do so against the will of a significant share of the population.
France is not the United Kingdom. The country is deeply interwoven with the European institutions and other EU countries. I don’t think Le Pen can this easily “pull the trigger” and call a referendum on EU membership. More likely, her presidency would develop along the lines of Viktor Orbán in Hungary: deep hostility towards Brussels, loud disagreement and even open conflict. Not a nice outlook indeed but is it survivable? I think it is.
What we need is a positive case for Europe
It seems certain that 2017 will be no better year for the EU than 2016. Populism is still on the rise and in France, a populist party might just win this year’s presidential elections. It might. However, it won’t help anyone to doom the whole European project because of that prospect. It’s not all about politicians, parties and governments after all. If the EU manages to regain the support of a majority of people in France and elsewhere, Le Pen and others will have a hard time wrecking the project. Vice versa, if public support for the EU continues to fall, we won’t even need a Le Pen to wreck it.
Instead of bemoaning the current state of things, let’s instead try and create a positive case for this wonderful project again. Brexit offers a unique chance here and recent moves towards a real two-speed Europe are the right signal already. Let’s give the folks in Munich something else to talk about next year.