Has populism disappeared from Europe? Is the European Union finally perceived as a constructive actor in Europe? Where are the reflections on regional crises affecting the unity of the EU and the security of the member states (MS)? All these questions seem to have disappeared from the national and European agendas since the election of Emmanuel Macron at the helm of France. Unfortunately, the malaise within each MS of the Union remains unchanged and ought to be analyzed.
On the question of the European Union, the debate about the role of the Commission will re-emerge with the next appointment of the President in 2019 and the next rounds of trade agreement with Japan. One core lesson that is often forgotten is the centrality of the MS in the decision-making process of the EU. The integration of the Union, either deepening or widening, cannot occur without the agreement and consent of the MS. If European technocrats and experts on the EU are aware of this fact, a wide majority of Europeans still tends to be unaware or even doubt this reality. Many cases in recent years, beginning with the Greek debt crisis leading to a referendum opposing the terms of the bailouts, which was then rejected by Prime Minister Tsipras, followed by the Austrian elections in May/November 2016, then the Brexit vote in June 2016, and the radicalization of new MS like Poland and Hungary, illustrate this popular opposition against the integration process and the EU at large.
The commonalities among all these cases are: regain of national sovereignty, protection of national identity, and quest to increase national power over European forces. The argument has usually been MS versus the EU. However, opening up the black-box of each MS, one can identify a much more nuance and complex picture. Within each MS, a division between cosmopolitanism (usually cities) versus nationalism (usually rural and post-industrial regions) is dividing countries politically and culturally speaking. The domestic split existed before 2016, but the financial crisis leading to an anemic economic growth across the Union exacerbated the split.
However, since the ‘positive’ outcomes of the Dutch and French elections, one could be fooled believing that the cultural-identity split dividing MS and the Union has disappeared. For many the election of Emmanuel Macron at the helm of French presidency stopped the populist wave. Such statement is certainly false considering the current domestic tensions in Poland with the push for constitutional reforms undermining the independence of the judiciary and in Hungary with the continuous anti-democratic efforts. The response of the Commission to potentially trigger Article 7 to sanction Poland is the proper approach enforcing the Copenhagen Criteria. However, the lack of clear support by Paris and Berlin to sanction Warsaw sends a mix message of unity and support of the rule of law in the EU.
The current Brexit negotiations are as well an important matter for the future of the EU and the relationship with the UK. Even though the departure of the UK from the Union is a disappointing event, it is an important historical lesson for Europeans. At this point, it would be a mistake for the EU to appear weak in the negotiations by not reaching a complete departure of the UK from the Union; Brexit ought to occur. In the UK, there are already surges of unhappiness towards the ruling class with the recent domestic talks of a potential remaining of the UK in the Union. It would play against the EU to keep the UK at this point of time. Despite a close majority of pro-Brexit votes winning the non-binding referendum, the EU needs to move along and finalize the exit of the UK. In addition, the EU needs to remain strong in enforcing rule of law and global norms. If the rumors of ongoing US-UK negotiations, as advanced by the American president, regarding a comprehensive trade agreement between the UK-US to kick in as soon the exit is completed, were to be true, the EU needs to escalate the matter. It is in the interest of the EU to enforce its global standing as the trade negotiator for the 28 Member States. The credibility of the EU as global actor is at play and should not be undermined by neither the UK nor the US. The 27 remaining MS need to support such action in case ongoing trade talks between London and Washington were to be accurate.
The domestic political tensions have distracted from the broader question of furthering the integration of the EU. The Eurozone crisis has highlighted the limitation of an integration à la carte and incomplete integration process in fiscal and economic matters. President Macron was in recent time the most pro-European candidate centering his agenda around the need to foster EU integration. Now in power, President Macron may back down from its EU centric agenda. But the EU needs to maintain the momentum in pushing for deepening the integration process in fiscal and economic issues as well as in defense policies.