Yuba Nath Lamsal
“To understand Europe, you have to be either genius or French”, said American diplomat Madeleine Albright. This sums up the centrality of France in European affairs and so was reflected in the recently held French presidential election.
When French people were voting in the second round of the presidential election on April 24, concerns and speculations were rife more in Brussels, London, Berlin and Washington than Paris. The election results that gave Emmanuel Macron second term in the Elysee Palace defeating firebrand Marine Le Pen was a greater relief for European leaders than Macron himself. Le Pen’s defeat was more to rejoice than the celebration of Macron’s victory in Europe and the western world for two reasons. First, Macron’s victory gives a sense of stability of European Union at least for another five years and secondly Macron’s France will not hobnob with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Macron is pro-EU politician whereas his rival EU-sceptic Le Pen seeks to assert French policy sovereignty in Europe implying that Paris should, if necessary, come out of EU in a way the United Kingdom did two years ago.
The way European leaders were quick to congratulate Macron over his electoral victory underscores its importance for the fate of the European Union. “In this turbulent period, we need a solid Europe and a France totally committed to a more sovereign and more strategic European Union”, was the tweet of European Council President Charles Michel, immediately after election results whereas Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said Macron’s re-election was “wonderful news for all of Europe”, which was echoed also from Berlin and other European capitals.
French election was definitely an issue of concern in Europe because EU’s fate is linked with it. But it was also being watched closely across the world because of the position and rhetoric of Macron’s rival Le Pen. The United States and United Kingdom have a little concern over EU’s future. UK has already left the EU and the stability of the EU may not be in its core interest. US, too, does not seem very keen in the proposition of united and stronger Europe and would rather prefer Europe to be more dependent on Washington for security. The United States thus seeks to enlarge and strengthen NATO in Europe. Macron may not be the best option for the US and UK simply because Macron opts for integrated Europe and stronger European Union with lesser dependent on NATO for European security. Instead, Macron prefers a separate European army under the European Union for its collective defence—an unwelcome idea for the US and UK. Moreover, the formation of the trilateral security pact called AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom and United States) and cancellation of France’s submarine deal with Australia ostensibly under pressure from US-UK had caused friction in France relations with London and Washington. But Le Pen’s admiration for Putin was the raison d'etre for bringing US closer with Macron.
The Ukraine war has focused global eyes on Europe’s changing geopolitics. French presidential election turned out to be a global concern. Russia and China, too, must have watched it closely and keenly. After the Brexit, France, Germany and Italy are the key plyers and powers to decide the fate of the European Union. For Russian President Putin, Eurosceptic Le Pen was better choice and Macron’s victory was not welcome news, whereas outward looking Macron may be more comfortable for Beijing.
Given the changing global geopolitics, international balance of power and Europe’s current situation, France’s role seems is central in Europe. After the Brexit, EU is more or less Franco-German-Italian project. The European Union was created with economic consideration rather than political and security motives. Behind its creation, Germany was the key factor as Berlin looked for a secured European market for its huge export. Germany is the largest economy in European Union and fourth in the world. Its economy is export based as German export is equivalent to almost half of its total GDP. Of the total German export, almost half is exported to European Union countries. France is the largest military power and second largest economy in the European Union while Italy is the second military power and third largest economy in EU. Thus, the role of France, Germany and Italy is more important in the EU than other countries although all 27 members of the EU have equal status in theory. But, in practice, countries are not equal when it comes to exercising power, so is in the European Union. Thus, powerful countries exercise more power to influence others in the decision making.
Looking from outside, Europe seems to be united as European countries more or less share many commonalities including race, religion, culture and moral and political values. Deep down in the core of their sentiment, Europe is a house divided. Distrust is high among EU countries. Germany, France and Italy are the dominant force in the European Union. But they also do not trust one another. Germany is suspicious of France and France distrusts Italy whereas Italy is not comfortable with both Germany and France. So is the case with Poland and Germany. Only the Russian threat factor has kept them united.
Europe is the leader in the world in invention, innovation, exploration and even destruction. Europe is home to major civilizations and many innovative ideas and movements. All political ideologies including capitalism, socialism, democracy, socialism, communism and social democracy were born in Europe. Europe combined is still the largest economy and largest military power in the world. But their mutual distrust led to series of wars in Europe. Europe’s history is the history of war. The first and the second world wars were also basically European wars that saw history’s largest human casualties and worst collateral damages. The Ukraine war is the newest manifestation of this inherent European character.
The existential crisis the European Union is facing especially in the wake of newer developments in the eastern flank of Europe begs much from Macron re-election which has greater ramification as well as has raised expectations for the future of Europe. Macron has twin challenges of cohabiting with the diverse political spectrum at home from communists to far rightist elements and take along the European Union countries comprising different interest and facing multiple challenges. It remains to be seen how things unfold and how Macron handles the new challenges.
(published in TRN on May 4, 2022)