"Macron's Act of Madness Stabs Both Himself and Europe in the Back"

The Guardian columnist analyzes the elections in Britain and France

by Sededin Dedovic
"Macron's Act of Madness Stabs Both Himself and Europe in the Back"
© S├ębastien Courdji / getty Images

It was both a good and bad week for Europe, notes historian Timothy Garton Ash in a column for The Guardian. Good, because Britain now has a strong, stable centrist government that wants to reset relations with the EU. Bad, because it looks like France is facing a period of weak, unstable, divided government that will hinder the entire EU.

This is a crucial year for our continent, with Vladimir Putin still ordering strikes in Ukraine, and Donald Trump likely to become the US president again unless Joe Biden steps aside as he should. Let’s start with the good news before we get depressed again.

Britain has gained a responsible, pragmatic center-left government, elected for a term of up to five years. It is led by a former human rights lawyer determined to defend the rule of law at home and internationally; embraces a sensible mix of market economy, state intervention, and social justice; strongly supports Ukraine and is committed to establishing good relations with other European countries.

British Prime Minister Keir Starmer© Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

In fact, it aligns much better with the values proclaimed in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union than the government of EU member state Hungary, whose illiberal nationalist leader Viktor Orbán sat with Putin in Moscow to discuss how to force Ukraine to capitulate in the name of "peace." Here’s the catch: Britain (in case you hadn’t noticed) is no longer a member of the core European political and economic community.

As if training for the 100-meter run at the Paris Olympics, David Lammy, the new British foreign minister, visited his colleagues in Germany, Poland, and Sweden within just the first few days in office. Meanwhile, John Healey, the new defense minister, hurried to Odessa for talks with his Ukrainian counterpart.

Lammy was determined and eloquent, calling for a “reset,” “new start,” and “close partnership” with the EU and individual European countries. Britain proposes a new Britain-EU security pact, along with closer cooperation in many areas.

Much goodwill was expressed in Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, and other European capitals. But the fact that the UK is institutionally just another “third country” for the EU means that the process of negotiating this new, closer relationship will be complicated, with numerous opportunities for blocking or veto by various national, party-political, and bureaucratic players within the EU.

Moreover, the red lines declared by Starmer to win back Brexit voters to Labour – no return to the EU customs union, single market, or freedom of movement – severely limit what can be achieved on the economic front.

And British politics isn’t as different from that on the continent as it might first appear. The key reason for the scale of Labour’s victory was that right-wing votes were split between the Conservatives and Nigel Farage’s Reform Party, which is the British – more precisely, English – equivalent of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, Germany’s AfD, or Italy’s Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), channeling widespread popular economic and cultural grievances into the scapegoating of immigration.

Reform UK leader Nigel Farage© Dan Kitwood / getty Images

Farage’s Alternative for England received about 14% of the vote compared to the roughly 24% who voted for the Tories. Nationalist populist sentiments on both sides of the Channel will limit and complicate the UK-EU reset, while the hard right strengthens on both sides.

Yet the news from London is more encouraging than that from Paris. Yes, an astronaut orbiting our planet would have heard a huge sigh of relief rising from across the European continent at 8 pm French time on Sunday evening, as we learned that the National Rally did not repeat its spectacular success from the first round of parliamentary elections and will only be the third-largest group in the National Assembly, the lower house of the French parliament.

But that’s where the good news ends. If the vote in Britain was primarily to oust the Conservatives, in France it was to keep the RN out, not to endorse anyone in particular. The result is a split parliament between three main groups: the hastily assembled New People’s Front (NFP), a loose leftist coalition of four very different parties, including Euroskeptics and populists of Unsubmissive France; Macron’s centrist Ensemble, which isn’t really a party, just, well, an ensemble; and the RN, which is a highly disciplined party.

No one has a majority on their own. All options being discussed for forming a government are likely to be unstable. The country has a large national debt and a big budget deficit. Expansionary spending plans from the NFP could still provoke the wrath of bond markets and unsettle the eurozone.

According to the constitution, the president cannot call new elections for another year. In opposition, the RN could gain even more support, preparing for the presidential election to be led by Le Pen or Jordan Bardella in 2027.

In short, while Britain has a strong government but a weak position in Europe, France will have a strong position in Europe but a weak government. Macron’s authority and influence are significantly diminished – and it’s entirely his fault.

Former British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak likely made a mistake by calling early elections (and then running a rain-soaked, gaffe-filled campaign), but he would have been obliged to call elections by the end of the year anyway.

It was written on the Conservatives’ wall after 14 years in power during which they caused so much damage to the country. Macron, on the other hand, had a relative but not absolute majority for his centrist group in a parliament elected until 2027, when his presidential term ends.

I remember watching him in Normandy on the anniversary of D-Day on June 6 and saying to myself, “there is a man who has succumbed to hubris”. Just three days later, the “Jupiterian” president hastily, melodramatically announced snap parliamentary elections, manifesting that particularly pernicious form of folly that, unfortunately, he shares with some elite British Brexiteers: the folly of highly educated and intelligent people.

As a result, Jupiter has become Icarus. Calling for political “clarification,” he achieved the opposite. For all of Europe, the tragedy is that Macron was also the most powerful advocate of what we Europeans urgently need, in a superheated world torn between Putin, Trump, and Xi Jinping: more unity, more coherence, more power.

Or as he puts it: l’Europe puissance. And he recently became the most influential voice in Western Europe advocating increased support for Ukraine, whose fate hangs by a thread today. Just a few weeks ago, Macron warned us that “Europe is mortal”. Now, in an act of madness and hubris, he has stabbed both himself and Europe in the back.

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