Charting a Path to a More Secure EU

Political developments in Europe leading up to, and in the wake of last year’s Brexit referendum show that the path toward a more secure future for the European Union (EU) cannot rely on traditional political structures, a reality demonstrated by the campaign and election of French President Emmanuel Macron, according to a political analyst.

“The traditional right-left divide as it has structured democracies is obsolete,” Benjamin Haddad, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, said at the Atlantic Council. He said that Macron saw the developments in Western democracy, driven by populist impulses, and by appealing to the growing political center rode the anti-establishment wave to the Élysée Palace on May 7.

That same popular discontent with existing political structures is “something that [US President Donald J.] Trump saw as well,” said Haddad. However, he added, “Macron did the opposite of Trump.”

In his campaign, Macron embraced the disdain of the French people for their political establishment, “without being hijacked by extremist ideology,” said Haddad. According to Daniel Fried, distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative and Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, Macron’s political moves “have interrupted the nationalist narrative,” and demonstrated to fellow politicians “how creative political thinking can actually work with that environment.”

Ultimately, said Fried, a former assistant secretary of state for Europe, “Macron tells us that politics can fix things if it proceeds from a realistic appraisal of the problems.” Both Haddad and Fried agreed that Macron’s election paves a constructive path for Europe’s future.

Fried and Haddad joined Alexandra Hall Hall, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, and Richard Wike, director of global attitudes research at Pew Research Center, to discuss how other European leaders can capitalize on Macron’s political success to take similar steps toward preserving the EU, and Europe writ large. Fran Burwell, distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative, moderated the discussion.

The panelists discussed these issues in light of a recently released Pew poll which analyzed Europeans’ opinions toward the EU in the wake of the Brexit referendum in which British voters favored the United Kingdom (UK) leaving the EU. The report’s findings indicate that “there’s signs of frustration,” said Wike. He claimed that while “in several countries we’ve seen significant improvements [in opinions of political institutions] over the last few years,” overall the findings show that European leaders must grapple with popular discontent in their nations that is largely directed at the EU.

While the report shows an assortment of causes and degrees of frustration, which varies from country to country, two main trends prevail in European public opinion: EU citizens are frustrated with Brussels’ handling of their economic woes and the refugee crisis. These are the main issues which drove the UK to Brexit in June of last year. However, “the recent election in the UK tells us very clearly… that the UK remains deeply divided over the issue of Brexit,” said Hall Hall referring to the June 8 election in which British Prime Minister Theresa May saw her Conservative Party’s ruling majority in the House of Commons shrink.

Hall Hall described how by and large in this year’s parliamentary elections, younger voters came out in support of the opposition Labour Party in the UK, in response to the older voters who pushed the referendum toward Brexit in 2016.  However, the results of these elections “took the UK no further in terms of a Brexit strategy,” she said.

Though the Pew poll also indicated that most Europeans do not want to follow in London’s footsteps and leave the EU, “people want more power brought back into their own countries,” particularly with regard to ownership of the economic and migration issues, said Wike.

According to Haddad, the issue citizens take with Brussels is less focused on how the EU controlled the migration crisis, but a prevailing sense among EU citizens “that it wasn’t controlling [the crisis], that no one was in charge.”

“There does seem to be this enormous distance between Europeans and their political systems,” said Burwell. “There is a problem of communication and the education of the public,” Haddad added.

Ultimately, “the issues of immigration and trade have to do with peoples’ sense of alienation,” said Fried. EU citizens’ frustration with Brussels and desire to bring power back to national capitals to find solutions to these problems is “not an issue of relative competencies… but a sense of losing control of what matters to them,” he said.

In light of these political realities, European leaders must find a way to connect to and identify with their publics, said Fried. However, he said, they cannot rely on traditional abstractions. “Europe does not capture people’s hearts. It’s still an abstraction,” according to Fried.

Therefore, he said, an effort to strengthen European identity and the identification of citizens with Europe rather than their countries “is futile and probably harmful.” According to Fried, what Europe needs is a dual identity; citizens must understand themselves as embodying both a national and a European identity. For example, “Macron ran as a French leader with a European vocation.”

“You have to make it ideological,” said Haddad.

However, he added, “it’s not only about narrative, it’s also about results.” Macron’s election and parliamentary majority has given him the public and political mandate to deliver on the issues he campaigned on. If he cannot achieve results, “French voters are going to be unforgiving,” said Haddad. 

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council. 

Related Experts: Alexandra Hall Hall and Daniel Fried

Image: (from left) Fran Burwell, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, moderated a discussion with Richard Wilke, director of global attitudes research at Pew Research Center; Benjamin Haddad, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute; Alexandra Hall Hall, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center; and Daniel Fried, a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Coucil's Future Europe Initiative and Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. (Atlantic Council)