ANDt’s hardly a secret that pro-Europeans are on the edge across the continent, anxiously worrying whether Emmanuel Macron will win today’s French presidential election. His challenger, Marine Le Pen, is openly prepared to subvert the EU to propagate her vision of a reborn autarchic, nationalist France even ready to partner strategically with Russia. The EU’s capacity to drive forward internally and externally, so crucial given the mountainous challenges facing the continent, not least the war in Ukraine, would collapse. So would the cohesion of the west.
As matters stand, it looks like though Macron will make it. But British pessimists worry that the EU may not be safe for long. Whether we’re talking about inflation, the cost of living crisis, weaning Europe off Russian energy, holding a common line against Vladimir Putin or protecting EU values against attacks from rightwing populists, the EU faces some of the most formidable challenges since the Second World War – with structures that are scarcely fit for purpose.
In France, Macron is constitutionally banned from standing again in 2027. With the collapse of the traditional “republican” left and right parties, Le Pen or successor facing an opponent with less swagger and sense of mission than Macron might have a real chance. Much of French politics now depends on whether France’s improving economic performance follows through to show benefits that are sufficiently visible – and whether the EU is seen no less visibly to be a source of strength.
Here, a newly elected Macron will need the unflinching support of Germany, a country itself, for all its deeply held pro-European convictions, beset by its own tensions and ghosts. Picture newspaperGermany’s bestselling rightwing tabloid, has labeled Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank, “Madame Inflation” as eurozone inflation hits 7.5%, while the 86-year-old veteran hawk of both the Bundesbank and the European Central Bank, Otmar Issing, has accused the guardians of European price stability as living in a “fantasy”.
German inflation has not been as high for more than 70 years. It was hyperinflation in the 1920s that opened the door to Hitler. Other Europeans may admire the success of liberal capitalism and democracy in postwar Germany, but Germans themselves worry the gains are precarious and that old demons could be easily stirred – paradoxically by the EU they so cherish.
Last May, Olaf Scholz, then the German finance minister and now the chancellor, hailed the just launched ambitious EU Covid-recovery plan as Europe’s “Hamiltonian moment”. EU member states would guarantee the issue of EU bonds on an unprecedented scale to finance investment in green and digital technologies, along with social resilience measures to better manage future pandemics, just like the US first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, pioneered the federal government’s guarantee of state debts to cement the newly created USA. Macron, who had fought hard for the fund, was equally delighted. The EU had shown its mettle; a rubicon had been crossed. If he wins, be sure Macron will come back for more.
But the Ukraine war and epic inflation are shaking Germany. Underwriting EU bonds looks less clever as German criticism of the European Central Bank mounts for swamping the EU’s financial system with cheap cash – and now the country has to navigate the exceptional cost of weaning itself off Russian oil and gas. It opposes an EU-inspired immediate ban on Russian oil and gas imports; economics minister, Robert Halbeck, warned this would “create mass unemployment, poverty, people who can’t heat their homes and would run out of petrol”.
But even the phased ban that the EU will soon announce risks a German recession and a squeeze on living standards. Germany must simultaneously fund its own energy transition and a vast defense build-up. Its appetite for more “Hamiltonian” EU-wide measures that Macron and the rest of Europe so badly need is going to be limited. The prospect of fudge and the continued rise of rightwing populism look all too real.
Except, except. British commentary on Europe always emphasizes what is going wrong – rarely what is going right. Yes, there are profound challenges in France, Germany and the EU. But set besides the US facing a resurgence of know-nothing Trumpism and Britain confronting a Brexit-induced collapse in its trade, an investment crisis, endemic stagflation and a constitutional impasse, these challenges look comparatively dark. What is impressive about the EU is that, unlike the US and UK, the center is holding. The mainstream French and German political classes, along with those in Spain, Italy, Holland and beyond, know the EU is a crucial bulwark. And they stand by it.
After a faltering start, the EU weathered Covid well and in most respects better than Britain – as a collective political organization. Fewer deaths; stronger vaccination programs; better support for hard-hit, less developed countries. The EU recovery plan was a Hamiltonian moment and across Europe is proving a stimulus to some of the best thought through investment policies in decades.
The European Central Bank may have misjudged inflationary pressures, but so did the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England. These pressures are likely to ease in Europe, helped by the strength of the euro with its reserve currency status, while British inflationary pressures will remain more protracted as sterling’s recent decline accelerates with our weakening economy. The collapse in British trade has shown the value of the EU’s single market, while strong EU measures to push Facebook and Google to regulate what is on their platforms more aggressively would be impossible to enforce by single states. What’s more, more likely gains in southern and eastern Ukraine underline the need for the EU to stand together.
Europe’s leaders know all this. The greater crisis is not in the EU, which will weather its problems because of that political will. It is the abject failure of Brexit and the all too slow process of ousting a prime minister deceiving the House of Commons on which the integrity of British democracy depends. If Macron wins, it will be a signal that Europe is getting through its worst – while Britain has yet to touch the bottom.