Sunday’s election of Emmanuel Macron should put such panic to rest. There are strong signs that the E.U. is on the verge of a new period of invigoration.
Macron’s presidential victory over far-right Marine Le Pen was just the latest in a string of elections in Europe that were initially feared to go toward extremists and instead ended up reaffirming support for mainstream, pro-E.U. leaders. The E.U. has actually demonstrated its resilience in several ways long before yesterday’s outcome. Just three days after the Brexit vote last summer, Spain’s election expanded support for centrist Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, while the country’s most Euro-skeptic party did far worse than expected. In December 2016, anxieties shifted to the Austrian election with predictions that Norbert Hofer of the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria had the support to win. Again, the pro-Europe candidate handily beat him. In March, we saw the frenzy over the Dutch election in anticipation that Geert Wilders’s far-right Party for Freedom would prevail. But Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s easy victory over Wilders once more demonstrated that the panic over extremism was overblown. And of course, most recently, the French election secured the leadership of pro-Europe independent Macron, despite all of the hot air over Le Pen’s chances. Looking ahead, Germany’s election in September will undoubtedly mean the continuation of a pro-E.U. chancellor, joining Macron to reestablish a strong Franco-German axis — long understood to be the engine of the European project.
Second, these elections point to a more fundamental shift in Europe: declining populism. Indeed, since at least January 2017, crowds of anti-populists have been emerging out of the woodwork across Europe precisely in response to the amplified voices of extremists. In just a few months, this emerging movement known as Pulse of Europe has seen thousands of citizens across more than 100 cities take to the streets and demonstrate their strong belief in the importance of European values, including integration, cosmopolitanism and inclusion. This movement is challenging populist extremism in a visible way as regular E.U. citizens realize that if they remain complacent, far-right anti-Europe sentiment could actually lead to fundamental changes to their way of life.
Third, going hand in hand with declining populism is a significant rise in pro-E.U. sentiment. According to biannual Eurobarometer surveys, trust overall in the E.U. has increased and is at nearly its highest level since autumn 2011. Trust in the E.U. has always been consistently higher than trust in national governments, and 67 percent of Europeans now feel that they are citizens of the E.U. — the highest percentage ever. Sixty-nine percent want a common European migration policy, indicating that Europeans feel the solution to one of their most prominent current challenges lies at the E.U. level. In March, a large majority across Europe expressed positive views of the Treaty of Rome on its 60th anniversary, including 71 percent in France. Another poll — IFOP — confirms these trends. Support for the E.U. in Germany has gone up 19 points to 81 percent, in France 10 points to 67 percent, in Italy 4 points to 59 percent, and in Spain 9 points to 81 percent. A number of other countries — Belgium, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands — also show this uptick in support, and significant majorities in Germany, France, Italy and Spain said they were against returning to their national currencies and wanted to keep the euro.
Finally, of course, there is Brexit. There is no denying that the United Kingdom’s impending departure from the European Union is an unfortunate blow to the unity that Europeans have been striving to achieve for the past 60 years. But European leaders have nevertheless been able to turn Brexit into an advantage. Just days after the referendum, the E.U. released its “Global Strategy,” outlining specific ways in which the E.U. will pursue a more coherent and strategic foreign policy. Following that, the French and Germans put forward a proposal for the creation of a true defense union. Member states agree on the importance of a common operational headquarters, closer military cooperation and a common budget for security research, among other things, once the British veto is gone.
Pundits and the media like to make a sport out of Europe-bashing. Macron’s election should be a wake-up call to put things into perspective. If not, continued overblown perceptions risk the danger of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. There is no reason to let the Brexit-Trump scare dictate the terms of future opportunities for stability and security in Europe.