European Integration at the Fore as Election Season Picks Up Momentum

27 April 2017

Election season in Europe has picked up momentum in recent weeks, with the news that Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen will face off on 7 May in a decisive runoff in France, while the UK prepares for snap elections in June.

The electoral developments are being looked to closely for their implications on topics such as trade policy, European integration, and the Brexit negotiations, among a whole host of others. The EU is also slated to see elections in Germany this September.

Macron, Le Pen gear up for round two

The first-round victory on Sunday for the independent former banker Macron and far-right Le Pen, both “outsider” candidates, marks the first time in over 70 years that the Socialist Party (PS) and the Republican party were pushed out in the first round. Macron swiftly received the backing of the defeated socialist and republican candidates, Benoît Hamon and François Fillon.

“I have heard in the last months and again today the doubts, the anger, and the fears of the French people. Their desire for change as well. This is what led them tonight to push the two big parties that have governed it for more than 30 years away from responsibility,” said Macron following the vote.

Other observers have pointed to the result as a potential sign of abatement in the perceived wave of populism and anti-globalisation sentiment that has been credited for helping US President Donald Trump win the White House and for last year’s Brexit referendum.

The relationship of France, the Eurozone’s second largest economy, with the EU is a key point of contention between Macron and Le Pen, such that Pierre Moscovici, the French EU Commissioner for economics, has framed the vote in terms of a “referendum” on EU integration.

“The good news is that there is a clear choice – two visions of society. An open society versus a closed one; an open economy versus a closed one,” Moscovici said, according to the Financial Times.

Le Pen’s programme includes promises to restore to the French people its monetary, economic, legislative, and territorial sovereignty, starting with a referendum on French membership in the EU following preliminary negotiations with Brussels.

“The objective is to achieve a European project respectful of the independence of France,” and to “establish a true economic patriotism by freeing itself from European constraints,” Le Pen’s webpage reads.

Le Pen has also proposed a line of trade policy that she terms “intelligent protectionism,” aimed at supporting French companies faced with “unfair” competition from overseas. Le Pen would also support the overhaul of the euro and the restoration of a French national currency, as “the lever of our competitiveness.”

Meanwhile, Macron, whom Le Pen has called “the representative of unbridled globalisation,” has campaigned in support of the EU, promising to give a greater voice to the people by installing conventions for citizens throughout European member states, and to put in place a budget for the Eurozone overseen by a Eurozone Minister of Economy and Finance.

His website proclaims that “to want to weaken Europe is to let France face the threats of the present world alone.” Macron would rather protect European companies and ensure fair global competition, such as by strengthening anti-dumping instruments, opening up EU public procurement markets to companies with at least half of their production in Europe, and including binding social and environmental clauses in EU trade deals.

He has backed trade liberalisation as a route to a more competitive French economy and campaigned in favour of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), the trade pact between EU and Canada currently gearing up for provisional application. (See Bridges Weekly, 6 April 2017)

UK elections in June

Across the channel, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has now called a snap election for 8 June, just weeks after triggering Article 50 to begin the Brexit process. The move to hold early elections has already received the official sign-off from UK lawmakers. (See Bridges Weekly, 6 April 2017).

“Britain is leaving the European Union and there can be no turning back… We want a deep and special partnership between a strong and successful European Union and a UK that is free to chart its own way in the world,” said May in announcing her plans.

She also characterised her hopes for Britain’s future, including on trade, while warning against division among UK legislators.

“We will be free to strike trade deals with old friends and new partners all around the world,” she said. “Division in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit and it will cause damaging uncertainty and instability to the country.”

May’s Conservative Party at present holds 330 of the 650 seats in the lower chamber of Parliament, but is expected to gain ground in a new election and consolidate her mandate for the Brexit negotiations.

The Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, has also promised to see through the result of the Brexit referendum but on different terms. It has recently seen flagging support, reaching record low levels in opinion polls and holding 229 seats. The Liberal Democrats, whose leader Tim Farron has called for finding a way to stay in the EU single market, were reduced to only nine seats in the House of Commons in a gruelling 2015 election outcome.

ICTSD reporting; “Theresa May calls for UK general election on 8 June,” THE GUARDIAN, 18 April 2017; “Everything you need to know about the UK’s general election,” THE GUARDIAN, 24 April 2017; “General election 2017: Where UK’s parties stand on Brexit,” BBC, 25 April 2017; “Theresa May Calls for New Election in Britain, Seeking Stronger ‘Brexit’ Mandate,” NEW YORK TIMES, 18 April 2017; “EU Commission throws weight behind Macron in French election,” ASSOCIATED PRESS, 24 April 2017; “European leaders cheer Macron victory in first round of French election,” THE GUARDIAN, 24 April 2017; “French election is ‘referendum’ on EU membership – EU commissioner Moscovici,” FINANCIAL TIMES, 24 April 2017.

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