The European commentariat has greeted the election of Emmanuel Macron as France’s next President with an almost uniform sense of relief. Many have lauded the French for building an impenetrable dam against the tide of anti-EU nationalism breaking across the Continent, with some suggesting that these results mean the tide will finally be turned back. But the French election was more a reflection of factors peculiar to French politics than a harbinger of a fundamental shift across Europe. Popular discontent with elites remains as strong as ever. Indeed the French vote, which arguably marked the most humiliating defeat for establishment parties in French postwar history, actually re-affirmed the electorate’s willingness to “kick the rascals out.”
Europe’s electorates remain angry and edgy, dismayed over policies on immigration, the economy, and the future of the European project. Macron’s spectacular victory in the second round does not change the fact that in the first round 55 percent of the electorate chose neither him nor Marine Le Pen, and that abstentions topped 25 percent (and were as high as 35 percent among the young and unemployed). According to the Interior Ministry, the second round also saw four million blank votes cast (a record 8.49 percent of all registered voters cast a blank or invalid ballots in the second round, compared to 2 percent in the first round). Nor does Macron’s win do much to stabilize French politics, notwithstanding the occasional nostalgia in the European press about the return of a “French imperial presidency.” And yet, while 20.7 million voters chose Macron in the second round, Le Pen got 10.6 million votes—a new record for the National Front, beating the previous best of 7.6 million achieved in the first round. In effect, support for Marine Le Pen is almost twice that of the 5.5 million votes her father garnered in the second round in 2002. Taking account of the public mood in France and the country’s tough economic and social problems, Macron’s election may arguably be a temporary reprieve rather than a final victory for the establishment.
The French election has also underscored how truly critical to Europe’s future the upcoming German national ballot in September will be. The big win for Angela Merkel’s CDU in the Schleswig-Holstein regional elections has dealt a significant blow to the Social Democrats’ confidence and caused a further shift in national polls in favor of the Chancellor retaining her post. The real predictor of the fall elections will be the outcome next week of the far bigger regional vote in Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany’s most populous Land. Assuming the CDU/CSU retains power after the national election, Angela Merkel will be positioned to define the future of the European Union from a dominant position in Europe. Underscoring this trend is the overall shift in the balance between the Eurozone center and the non-euro periphery of the EU; once the United Kingdom has left the Union, the percentage of the EU’s GDP generated outside the Eurozone will shrink from approximately 30 percent to 10 or 11 percent. Moreover, the departure of Europe’s second-largest economy from the European Union will force the Franco-German anchor of the EU to shed all pretense of co-equality, underscoring a reality increasingly apparent since the unification of Germany in 1990.
Should the Christian Democratic Union win in Germany this fall, Berlin will be positioned to move ahead full speed, led by the most experienced politician in Europe and with one of the most seasoned administrative structures in place. Paris, meanwhile, will be left to bask in the afterglow of its “Obama moment,” with a bright and charismatic but young and inexperienced leader in search of a political party and base he can genuinely call his own. The consequence will be the even greater political influence of Germany within Europe’s core, with the immigration issue a key challenge for the next Merkel government. The situation is likely to look different for EU members that will fall deeper into Europe’s “semi-periphery” once the United Kingdom has completed its exit from the Union. A lot has been written of late about how the surge of nationalist politics in postcommunist democracies, especially in countries such as Hungary and Poland, has contributed to the progressive parochialism of what not so long ago was proudly, if still somewhat aspirationally, called “Central Europe.” Perhaps. But the reality is also more straightforward, not to say banal. Despite tremendous economic progress over the past quarter century, the postcommunist states of the Eastern Europe of the Cold War era have yet to fully interconnect with Europe’s core. In fact, only Germany, because of its historical and geostrategic position as the quintessential Mitteleuropa state, has a deep sense of connectedness to the EU’s eastern flank; since its unification the security and stability of the countries along Germany’s eastern border have been a vital national interest. Here, the state of German-Polish relations in particular this fall will be an important predictor of the extent to which the semi-periphery will retain its waning political influence within the European Union..
Most importantly, the angry and disconnected electorates across Europe will continue to demand solutions to the questions of continued immigration, cultural fragmentation, weak growth, and high unemployment. Likewise, the great MENA migration that is changing European societies will continue to polarize and cleave politics across the EU. Hence, after the fall elections in Germany, Europe will likely turn further inward, while its neighborhoods, especially Turkey and Russia, will remain anything but stable. The EU’s ever-more self-obsessed agenda to stave off disintegration and restructure itself will continue for years come. Now more than ever, it is up to the Germans to find an answer to this most urgent of questions: After the 2017 elections, what’s next for Europe?