July 14, 2024, 8:50 pm

Britain Is Suddenly a Beacon of Stability in Europe – Now It Is France That Is in Turmoil

  • Update Time : Wednesday, July 10, 2024
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—Timothy Garton Ash—

It was a good week for Europe. It was a bad week for Europe. Good because Britain now has a strong, stable centrist government keen to reset relations with the EU, and voters in France rallied to keep the hard-right National Rally (RN) out of power. Bad because France looks set for a period of weak, unstable, divided government that will hamper the whole EU. This is a crucial year for our continent, with Vladimir Putin still pummelling Ukraine and Donald Trump again likely to become president of the US, unless Joe Biden steps aside as he should.

Let’s start with the good news, before getting depressed again. Britain has a responsible, pragmatic government of the centre-left, elected for up to five years. It’s led by a former human rights lawyer determined to defend the rule of law at home and internationally; embraces a judicious mix of market economy, state intervention and social justice; strongly supports Ukraine and is committed to pursuing good relations with other European countries. In fact, it’s a much better match to the values proclaimed in article 2 of the Treaty on European Union than the government of the EU member state Hungary, whose anti-liberal nationalist leader, Viktor Orbán, has been sitting down with Putin in Moscow to see how they can compel Ukraine to capitulate in the name of “peace”.

But here’s the snag: Britain (in case you hadn’t noticed) is no longer a member of Europe’s core political and economic community.

Britain proposes a new UK-EU security pact, with closer cooperation in many areas. Lots of goodwill has been 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 blocking or veto possibilities for various national, party-political and bureaucratic players inside the EU. Moreover, the red lines that Starmer proclaimed in order to win pro-Brexit voters back to Labour – no return to the EU’s customs union, single market or freedom of movement – seriously limit what can be done on the economic front.

And British politics is not as different from that on continental Europe as it seems at first glance. A key reason for the scale of Labour’s victory was that the rightwing vote was split between the Conservatives and Nigel Farage’s Reform party, which is the British – or more precisely, the English – equivalent of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, Germany’s AfD or Italy’s Fratelli d’Italia, channelling widespread popular economic and cultural concerns into the scapegoating of immigration. Farage’s Fratelli d’Inghilterra – or, if you prefer, Alternative für England – got about 14% of the popular vote, compared to about 24% for the Tories. Nationalist populist sentiments on both sides of the Channel will constrain and complicate the UK-EU reset, while on both sides the hard right is getting stronger.

Still and all, 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 the entire European continent at 8pm French time on Sunday evening, as we learned that RN had not repeated its spectacular success in the first round of this parliamentary election and would 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 in Britain the popular vote was first and foremost to kick the Conservatives out, in France it was to keep RN out, not to put anyone in particular in.

The result is a parliament split between three main groups. None has a majority on its own. All the options being discussed for forming a government are likely to be unstable and fissiparous. The country has a soaring national debt and large budget deficit. Expansive spending plans from the NFP could yet provoke the wrath of the bond markets and trouble the eurozone. According to the constitution, the president is not allowed to call new elections for another year. In opposition, RN may well gain even more support, preparing for a presidential run by Le Pen or Jordan Bardella in 2027.

In sum, 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 is greatly diminished – and that’s entirely his own fault. The former British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak probably miscalculated in calling an early election (and then conducted a rain-soaked, gaffe-filled campaign), but he would have been obliged to call an election by the end of the year anyway. The writing was on the wall for the Conservatives, after 14 years in power during which they have done such damage to this country. Macron, by contrast, had a relative although not an absolute majority for his centrist grouping in a parliament that was elected until 2027, the year in which his presidential term ends.

I remember watching him in Normandy on the D-day anniversary on 6 June, and saying to myself, “there’s a man who has succumbed to hubris”. Just three days later, the “Jupiterian” president made his hasty, melodramatic announcement of a snap parliamentary election, manifesting that particularly pernicious form of stupidity that he unfortunately shares with some elite British advocates of Brexit: the stupidity of highly educated and intelligent people. As a result, Jupiter has become Icarus. Calling for a political “clarification”, he has achieved the opposite.

For all of Europe, the tragedy is that Macron has also been the most powerful advocate of what we Europeans urgently need, in an overheating world torn between Putin, Trump and Xi Jinping: more unity, more coherence, more power. Or as he puts it: l’Europe puissance. And he has recently become the most influential west European voice in favour of increased support for an embattled Ukraine, whose fate today hangs in the balance. Only a few weeks ago, Macron was warning us that “Europe is mortal”. Now, in an act of folly and hubris, he has stabbed both himself and Europe in the back. (Abridged)


Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist.


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