In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Niccolo Milanese, Director of European Alternatives, a poet and a philosopher based in Paris, who together with Lorenzo Marsili co-authored Citizens of Nowhere: How Europe Can Be Saved from Itself. They talk about the recent parliamentary election in France and its consequences for the future of Europe, as well as about the Ukrainian and Moldovan application for the EU candidacy.
Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): I wanted to talk to you today about the French parliamentary election, but considering that today the European Council granted Ukraine and Moldova an EU candidate status, let me first ask you whether you consider this decision to be a merely symbolic gesture or is it a historic moment for the European Union – and Europe in general?
Niccolo Milanese (NM): We should not downplay the symbolic meaning of this decision too much. It marks a clear orientation both of the EU and Ukraine. This statement could have come earlier, at the Versailles Summit. There is a lot of reluctance among various member states. This decision is a credit to the Ukrainian government that it was able to maneuver the situation so that the request for the candidate status could not be turned down. There was no plausible way that the European Council could have said “no” without handing a victory to Russia. Moldova has managed to jump on the same train.
Clearly, the candidate status does not change much materially as it does not bring any immediate benefits. We know from the experience of the Western Balkans that the process may be extremely long and does not move very quickly. The symbolic dimension should, therefore, cannot be underplayed, but it is not a historic moment yet.
LJ: Do you think that this decision is just a manifestation of the EU being strategic? Or maybe it did not have any other choice and had to go with the flow?
NM: The EU had to go with the flow. There are different EU actors that want to believe that the EU enlargement is not dead, even if it looks that way from the point of view of the Western Balkans. In a way, the situation in Ukraine provided the EU with an easy way out and now they can say that something is happening in this regard – new countries want to receive the candidate status (without the need to do that much and without any serious consequences in return). Now, the EU is out of a bind.
The really big question of today is what will happen with the Western Balkan countries (Albania and North Macedonia), and whether their candidacies and negotiation will be jeopardized by what happens in the Bulgarian politics. That is a tough decision that the European Council will need to make. If any of this is to compensate (a mea culpa in a way) for Ukraine? It may be somewhere in the background. By now, people are aware that the war in Ukraine did not start this year, but years ago, and that Ukrainians started revolutions to get closer to the EU. It is tragic that is has taken this much time to even grant Ukraine the candidate status.
LJ: What is your take on the overall EU response to the war in Ukraine?
NM: The war really revealed how unserious the discussion on the strategic autonomy was prior to its outbreak. The EU has been again found unprepared. There was a lot of self-congratulation earlier on this year in regard to the unexpected European unity between the EU27. People were happy to have been working in coordination with the United States.
These self-congratulations were really misplaced. Over the past decades of crises, the EU has done its very minimum. In this case they had to face an extraordinary amount of twisting-of-arms by the US administration, which invested enormous amounts of time and personnel going around the European capitals explaining to people that this is a serious situation and so we have to show some minimum degree of unity.
This shows that before the Russian aggression the strategic autonomy concept was just a discussion in thin air. After it happened there is bound to be more strategic thought about military capacity and security. I do not really take autonomy as a topic too seriously. The recent events have shown that the EU is still highly dependent on the US leadership. This put us in a very perilous situation if the latter goes in the direction that is suddenly not so favorable to the European Union.
LJ: We have seen a lot of support from the Europeans to the Ukrainians. Does this mean that the people understand that we are facing difficult times and – just like has been the case with the COVID-19 – we need enormous resources to face these new challenges? After all, from the point of view of France, Spain, Italy, the war seems to be a rather peripheral conflict and, with the passage of time, it might become harder to sustain the sanctions against Russia.
NM: It is impossible to say what the entire populations are going to think in the future. I expect the support for the Ukrainian struggle will maintain its levels, or only slightly drop in the coming period. Of course, people are already talking about war fatigue. However, there is still an enormous public interest in what is going on in Ukraine – it has been on the front pages for months now and people are still reading about it. There is still a strong interest and outrage about what Russia has done.
Therefore, I would anticipate that the public support would remain quite high. This will be possible only if the people do not have the feeling that the governments are using supporting Ukraine as an excuse to punish them or not pay attention to them. For example, in France, the people will probably tolerate higher petrol prices and heating bills, but they will not if the government is not doing anything else to help them, that it is not paying attention to the fact that this causes social difficulties for a lot of people, and if the people have the feeling that Ukraine war as an excuse for anything that they may or may not support.
In light of this fact, I worry about the loading of the ‘green agenda’ onto the Ukrainian situation. Of course, in a way, the war in Ukraine provides an opportunity to transition away from some polluting industries. But there is a risk of politicizing that issue in an unnecessary way if people feel that what the government is really trying to do is to increase the price of petrol and uses the geopolitical situation as an excuse to not compensate – because people will lose out from that. There, therefore, is a risk of a return of the Yellow Vests movement, which would be extraordinarily dangerous, because such a social fracture would create a highly fertile ground for conspiracy theories for Russia’s disinformation.
LJ: This brings us to the recent parliamentary campaign and election in France. Emmanuel Macron won the presidential election (being the first president in some 20 years to be re-elected) but the campaign strategy did not pen out well in the parliamentary election and his party did not secure the majority in the parliament. What was the reason for this development?
NM: There were several factors that were at play here. Firs of all, the presidential and the parliamentary elections are very different. In the case of the former, in the second round one votes against a candidate you cannot stand – and Macron was clearly elected thanks to the mobilization of the people more on the left to his views who would not tolerate the idea of Marine Le Pen being the president. This was the case both times he was elected.
Throughout his whole presidency, Macron has taken for granted the support of these people, and this strategy started to backfire the moment the center-left is able to organize themselves more effectively. This is exactly what happened in the parliamentary election for the first time since the presidency of François Mitterrand.
Of course, we have to remember that something has changed structurally. Since Macron has come into power, France has changed from being essentially a two-party to a three-party system – with the Marcon’s centrist party emerging. In such a system it is mathematically more difficult to get a parliamentary majority. So, in a way, there is this tendency (which may be observed also in other European countries as well) to have coalition governments – and France is just the newest member in this club. Last night, Macron delivered a speech to the nation in which he stated exactly that and so France will have to learn to reach agreements between the parties either throughout the whole parliament or on a case-by-case basis. But the message was mixed with the same kind of arrogance that has annoyed a large part of the electorate over the past five years. Essentially, he was saying, ‘well, you voted for me and my program and everybody else needs to agree with that, and if you do not, we will find another ways of pushing it through.’
So, on the one hand, there is this discourse of ‘we are going to have to do things differently,’ but on the other hand, this means doing the things that we said we are going to do. There is little understanding of the social fracture that France is currently in – it was not present either in the discourse or the policies of the past five years.
I personally think that the Macron government does not get enough credit for the way the COVID-19 pandemic was managed – at least in terms of social support and keeping the schools open. Of course, there is also very justified criticism of the chronic underfunding of hospitals and care services, and nothing being done to correct that. Still, there were elements of crisis management and making sure that many people have not lost out too badly from the pandemic where Macron does, indeed, deserve more credit than he has been getting.
The fact that this has not manifested is an evidence of the social anger and a sense of betrayal surrounding Macron, who, when he first presented himself, he did that as someone who walks with two legs – one on the left and one on the right. Now, it has become incredibly clear that he has been hopping along on the right leg.
LJ: Does this dislike come from his policies or his personality? What do you make of President Macron?
NM: There is no doubt that he is courageous. Becoming president and being willing to talk with people on the street. He clearly has character and a lot of qualities. I think that the European nature of his proposals is something really interesting and has not yet been fully integrated. The reason why Macron has been able to widen his base of support and get people to vote for him who would otherwise find him highly objectionable is precisely his European ambition.
In the run-up to this presidential election, I heard many people saying ‘I am not happy at all with what Macron has done domestically, but I am willing to vote for him because he was able to get through the recovery plan at the European level to respond to the pandemic and that alone is much better than what could be expected of any of the other candidates, so I am willing to give him the benefit of a doubt.’
Macron marks a kind of Europeanization of politics in terms of Europe being a serious theme inside the French politics. In a way, he even underplayed this. The Ukrainian crisis dragged away a little bit of attention from some of the things he could have said about the achievements in the European space. For example, the European agreement on the adequate minimum wages, which is being introduced under the French presidency – that is the kind of a thing that if he had taken credit for it, it could have reached out to a more center-left electorate. And one of the areas where the agreement of the left parties in France is totally incoherent is precisely around Europe – they do not agree at all between La France Insoumise – which is basically an anti-European socialist party that identifies strongly with the current European construction – and the Greens, who want to have a federal Europe. They are on the completely opposite sides of the argument.
This could have been exploited as a strategy to break apart this coalition, but Macron was clearly preoccupied with other things and was posing as a ‘war president’ – even though France is not at war. Most people saw beyond that media posturing. This has something to do with the current constitution in France and the extraordinary focus that is put on the president himself. One of the most justified things that Jean-Luc Mélenchon has been saying is that there has to be a new constitutional settlement.
In France, at some point, this system is going to become dysfunctional. I do not think this will happen right now, with this parliament, but, clearly, the French politics is heading in a direction that is dysfunctional. Will Macron himself, as he reaches the end of his second term as the president, have the courage and the foresight to say, ‘we need to change the way politics works in France’? I hope so, but I cannot be sure right now.
LJ: From the outside, France seems like a country with a left-leaning debate with a centrist-liberal president. Still, a great number of people still vote for the nationalist party. How would you diagnose France right now? Or maybe Marine Le Pen’s party is moving away of the far right, and we should not be afraid of it?
NM: First of all, we should absolutely be afraid of Marine Le Pen and her sympathizers – determined and clear in our commitment to combat this phenomenon. It is highly regrettable that some of the defeated candidates supporting Macron, after the first round of the presidential election, did not give a clear signal that their supporters should vote against the far right in the second round. Huge responsibility rests both on those candidates and on the Macron presidency and government themselves. He has done plenty over the past five years to ensure that the alternative – at least in the presidential election – is basically Le Pen or Macron, because he knew that that was the winning formula for him.
Still, despite a more friendly appearance, Le Pen’s National Rally remains a nationalistic, xenophobic, anti-women’s right party, which clearly has a core of support. However, it is still capable of pulling in a lot of people who protest against the way the politics is working in France these days and the social inequality in a sense that certain parts of the territory are basically abandoned by the center. This is, specifically, the case in the north, but not only.
Now that Le Pen has a parliamentary group means that they can now try to have responsibility for important parliamentary committees in the French parliament is an extremely serious development – and European should take this seriously as well. From my perspective, Le Pen has been coming to the top of the European elections in France for several years now – this fact already should have been a wake-up call. Unfortunately, these elections are considered to be of secondary importance.
Therefore, it is inevitable that the national parliament will have a far-right group as well. It is dangerous not only for France, but also because Marine Le Pen’s sympathizers are extremely active in building support in other European countries and creating alliances. In Italy, the possibility of Fratelli d’Italia (the Brothers of Italy party) winning has increased because of what happened in France. There may be all kinds of contacts between the nationalists in France and Italy and scheming on how to go even further. So, the situation is undeniably very serious.
LJ: What will be the European consequences of the recent elections in France and the developments in Italy? May we expect the containment or rather normalization of the nationalist movements in Europe? What are the dynamics of the European politics when it comes to populism and nationalisms?
NM: The French presidency of the European Council was supposed to be a transformational moment for the European Union. It was set up with this in mind – that Emmanuel Macron would be able to lead a new wave of reforms and renewal of the EU. Now, because of the poor election results, this hope seems to be collapsing before our very eyes.
The European Council is meeting these days, and, at some point, there is even a possibility of a treaty change and a new convention. Just yesterday, the German foreign minister came out and said in contradiction to the coalition agreement of the government that now is not the time for a treaty change and, surely, the weakening of Macron’s position has been a factor in that.
The European Union must transform its way of doing things if it is pull through the next couple of years without having a new illiberal explosion. For it is already a serious concern and it is only likely to become even more serious. I do not think it is too late for that. There is still a basis in the European populations for far-reaching reforms in terms of the way the European Union functions. People have seen over the past decade that the current way of doing things does not live up to the legitimate expectations of Europeans.
We have also seen that when forced to by the pandemic or the external aggression that the EU is capable of doing things that were previously deemed impossible. So, I am hopeful that civic intelligence will push these issues to move forward.
The podcast was recorded on June 23, 2022.
Find out more about the guest: www.imagineeurope.eu/niccolo-milanese/
This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.