The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Macron wants to revive Europe, but European elections could kill his plans.

French President Emmanuel Macron often finds himself isolated in Europe. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

PARIS — Emmanuel Macron won the French presidency in 2017 on a decidedly pro-European platform. He sold voters a “Europe that protects” and took the stage at his victory party to the sound of “Ode to Joy,” the official anthem of the European Union.

Two years later, on the eve of elections for the European Parliament, Macron and his En Marche party continue to make the same pitch. Except his grand designs for a more united Europe haven’t gotten far, and if his party fares poorly in the election, while nationalist parties prosper, his leverage could be even further diminished.

The contest has assumed a symbolic dimension, as a standoff between those, like Macron, who want to strengthen the European project and nationalists who seek to thwart the multistate bloc from within.

In France, things don’t look especially good for Macron’s vision. The far-right Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen is polling a touch ahead of Macron’s En Marche, according to an Ipsos analysis published Sunday.

“For him, this is something that is being watched very carefully outside of France,” said Pierre Vimont, a former French ambassador to the E.U. “He needs to show to his supporters and to other E.U. members that his agenda still has the support of many French voters.”

In France and in Europe more broadly, it’s not just far-right populists who have stood in Macron’s way. “Yellow vest” demonstrators, angry about rising inequality, have largely stalled his planned domestic reforms. Meanwhile, he has found it difficult to get buy-in for his efforts to reform the euro zone, integrate European defense, develop a common asylum policy and impose a new tax on U.S. tech giants.

And he has stood increasingly isolated in his hard line on Brexit. At an emergency meeting of European leaders last month, he frustrated peers by pushing for a quick, clean break, even though London wanted more time and other leaders were inclined to be flexible. Diplomats familiar with his thinking say he fears that repeatedly extending the Brexit process saps Europe’s ability to fix itself. Macron says he wants a European Renaissance — and he has taken to repeating the concept as he campaigns around France and Europe.

If Macron stumbles, it could reverberate far beyond France’s borders. A weaker Macron could embolden right-wing leaders in Poland, Hungary and elsewhere to try to stymie Brussels’s push against authoritarianism. And Macron’s grand efforts to revive Europe could be moribund if his allies in other countries give up on him.

Commentators in the French foreign policy establishment — and even some in Macron’s camp — say he has relied far too much on the Franco-German alliance, which has long been considered the “motor” of the E.U. but has yet to deliver him any significant results. In doing so, these critics say, Macron has neglected the rest of Europe — including countries that may have been willing partners but now feel overlooked.

France’s Le Monde newspaper put it this way in a recent editorial: “Stopped in his tracks by German immobility, Mr. Macron failed to overcome the reluctance of the northern countries and the mistrust of those in Central Europe to obtain crucial support for his ambitious program.”

Macron has traveled widely in Europe. He was the first French president in 36 years to make an official visit to Denmark and the first in 19 years to visit Finland. But those trips haven’t translated into successful coalitions.

“I was among those who suggested to Macron that, on the European level, he should highlight that there are in fact fundamental disagreements between France and Germany and search instead for a European coalition that will try to have a majority,” said Shahin Vallée, a French economist and former Macron adviser.

“There is no future for Europe with France clashing Germany, but there is also no future for Europe with France caving in to Germany systematically. There are benefits to Franco-German agreements as well as to Franco-German disagreements.”

In September 2017, four months after his election, Macron spelled out his major ambitions for European “renewal” in a speech at Paris’s Sorbonne University, and his proposals were seen as an explicit call to Berlin to join forces.

But even then, the pro-European coalition government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel — once an unshakable bedrock of continental politics — had already entered a period of crisis. That crisis deepened in 2018, with Merkel facing an insurrection and saving herself only by veering to the right on immigration.

“The problem is that it was bad timing,” said French political scientist Dominique Moïsi, referring to Macron’s entreaties. “He came into the presidency at a time when Angela Merkel was no longer Angela Merkel, and Germany was retreating into some position of defending the status quo at any cost.”

Macron eventually got Merkel’s backing in June for a tentative integration plan that included a common euro-zone budget, one of his key desires. But at an E.U. summit the following week, the agreement was torpedoed by a Dutch-led coalition., showing the potential muscle of the “Hanseatic League” on the European political landscape.

“I don’t think there is a real alternative to turn away from Germany, because it hasn’t worked,” said Daniela Schwarzer, the director of the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations.

Another important regional development is the emergence of Central Europe’s Visegrad Group, which includes Poland and Hungary, both run by nationalist governments. No European leader has publicly antagonized Macron, or the E.U., more than Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

In the European political arena, Orban belongs to the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) — the same faction as Merkel. However, the EPP has temporarily suspended Orban for his sharply anti-E.U. rhetoric.

“We know after the European election there will be a representation of anti-European forces — yes, a minority everywhere — but if you take those minorities and the triangle of institutions, they may actually develop into a disturbing factor,” Schwarzer said.

“In that constellation, if you want to move Europe forward, member state leadership will be key.”

For the European elections, Macron’s party is campaigning alongside, although not technically within, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), the European Parliament’s mainstream liberal group.

But En Marche has not consistently stayed true to the promise — articulated most recently in an op-ed by Macron published in each of the E.U.’s 28 countries — of building a coalition of European progressive partners.

In Spain, for instance, it formed links not with the Socialist party of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez but rather with Ciudadanos, a nominally centrist faction that has recently veered to the right, especially on the question of Catalonian independence. In Spain’s snap election last month, Ciudadanos won 13 percent of the vote.

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