The battle between EU “nationalists” and “progressives” excludes too many voters

The binary vision promoted by Emmanuel Macron and Viktor Orbán is crudely narrowing democratic debate. 

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What are the European elections about? It depends who you ask. Any British person will tell you that they are, one way or another, about Brexit. But outside the UK, which is stranded in a pro/anti-Brexit binary, another narrative has developed: that of a battle for Europe’s soul between “nationalists” and “progressives”. This reductionist discourse conveniently aids both sides while leaving anyone who is neither a “nationalist”, nor a “progressive”, behind. 

The new rift emerged in Europe after Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 election as French president. Macron had run an unashamedly Europhile campaign and, a few days after marching to the EU’s “Ode to Joy” anthem at his victory rally, criticised “European leaders who betray European principles to adopt a cynical approach to the union”. Seemingly targeting Hungary and Poland over their restrictive immigration policies, he declared: “Europe isn’t a supermarket, Europe is a common destiny.”

In positioning himself as the Little Prince of Europe, Macron swiftly incurred the wrath of both countries. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán called him a “boy” and declared that “forcing the hand of eastern European countries” was not a good way to display friendship. Meanwhile, Polish deputy prime minister Beata Szydło wondered whether Macron would continue “spreading apathy” or instead “start a factual discussion”. 

In Orbán, Macron found a political nemesis who allowed him to spin his own vision of Europe. Then, in June 2018, came the formation of the populist Italian government, including Matteo Salvini’s hard-right Lega, and matters escalated. Macron described nationalism as a “leprosy that is spreading” and urged his supporters to fight against “those who hate Europe”; Salvini replied by denouncing the French president’s “hypocrisy” over immigration, declaring that “there are those who talk and those who act.” The feud continued: last November, Macron branded nationalism “a betrayal of patriotism”; in February, Salvini called Macron “a president who governs against his people”; in March, Macron published an open letter to Europeans in 27 languages and wrote: “We can’t let nationalists with no solutions exploit people’s anger.”

Macron has been the most vocal of the “progressives”, but he is far from the only one indulging this binary vision of Europe. Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s liberal leader and Brexit co-ordinator, recently described the Italian Lega’s plan for EU reform as a “kiss of death” that will “kill the EU from the inside” and challenged Salvini to a one-on-one debate, remarking that “people have the full right to know what devil’s plans you have in mind.”

In 2018, Le Monde charted the Macronite and Orbánite teams, identifying the “progressives” as EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, European Council head Donald Tusk and the Greek, Spanish, Belgian and Luxembourgish leaders (Alexis Tsipras, Pedro Sánchez. Charles Michel and Xavier Bettel), and the “nationalists” as Polish, French and Dutch far-right leaders Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. Even the European Parliament’s campaign to encourage citizens to vote (#ThistimeImvoting) is subtly designed to reinforce the “nationalists vs. progressives” frame. In Brussels, posters across the parliament’s entrance list reasons to go to the polls. One of the slogans reads: “Because I’d rather take responsibility for the future than blame others for the present” — archetypal “progressive” rhetoric. 

But this Manichean vision of Europe is not only profoundly reductionist, it also sets a dangerous precedent for democratic debate. The progressives, casting themselves as the “good guys”, have in doing so erased the possibility that people might wish to vote for neither side. In the great “progressives vs. nationalists” showdown, where, for instance, does a left-wing gilets jaune, opposing Le Pen and marching against Macron, fit in? Or an Italian who wants to help migrants but is receiving help from neither his government nor the EU? Under this binary vision, is voting for smaller parties irresponsible because it doesn’t serve either extreme? 

This dilemma is not new, at least for French voters, who faced a similar dilemma two years ago: choosing between the far-right Le Pen and the ultra-liberal Macron. The president successfully pitched himself as a shield against Le Pen’s extremism in 2017 but has done little to prevent the rise of the Rassemblement National (RN) in opinion polls since. As La République En Marche’s (LREM) European election campaign started sinking, in part due to its lead candidate’s disastrous decisions, Macron dramatically intervened, taking back control of LREMs election posters by adding his own face to them and doubling down on Europe-related media events. And yet, Le Pen’s RN is now polling slightly above Macron’s LREM — with 23 per cent to LREM’s 22 per cent. Which introduces another, even more worrying dilemma: if progressives like Macron, posing as Europe’s last heroes, fail to stop the rise of the “nationalists”, what next?

At a moment when the EU desperately needs the courage and imagination to address global issues such as climate change, refugee flows, automation and, yes, the rise of right-wing nationalism, removing political diversity from the European election debate does nothing to address voters’ true concerns, or to aid the wider European project.

In an interview with the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, Macron has recognised that the Renaissance group he is creating in alliance with the European Parliament’s liberals, will most likely require a coalition with other parties. “We will have to create a coalition of projects ... with the Socialists and with a portion of the Christian Democrats and the Greens,” he said.

The greatest defence against nationalism is, indeed, such an alliance. The failure of Europe’s “progressives” to come to this realisation earlier is, as Talleyrand once remarked, worse than a crime: it’s a blunder. 

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.