When Emmanuel Macron won an emphatic victory in the French presidential election the other week, the entire liberal establishment of Europe breathed a sigh of relief. If the Austrian presidential and the Dutch parliamentary elections hinted that we may have hit peak nationalist populism in the West, Macron’s victory seems like a decisive turnaround. We still have the German election coming up in the autumn, but the risks there seem minimal. The most likely scenario there is that Merkel wins the Chancellorship again – not a bad outcome. An unlikely victory for the SPD’s Martin Schultz, the main contender, would make Macron’s proposed European renewal and resurgence even more probable.
At least, this is the optimistic scenario for the future of liberal democracy in the West. And there are reasons to be optimistic. Perversely, the main reason to be optimistic is, in fact, Macron’s popularity – or to be more specific, lack thereof.
There is no doubt that his movement, France en Marche, was driven by a large cadre of true believers. Among the educated urban classes, Macron’s mix of social liberalism and economic centrism is wildly popular, just as it was for Tony Blair in Britain two decades ago. But in France, just as in Britain today, that demographic is decidedly a minority. It continues to be disproportionally influential, but there as here, its influence is waning. Many, if not the majority, of people who voted for Macron did not do so out of enthusiasm for his policy positions. They did so holding their noses.
And that is extremely good news. In Britain, some would argue that brand of liberalism, bolstered by the man’s personal popularity, was tarnished by Blair’s failures over Iraq. The backlash from some in the Labour party against it has been overly aggressive. But in France, people largely did not vote for Macron, or for his brand of liberalism. They voted for the moral soul of the French Republic. The decision before them was whether they stood for the liberal, democratic Republic they grew up in, or whether they preferred a populist system with a leader in the mould of Putin, Trump or Erdogan. And they have voted emphatically in favour of the Republic.
Don’t get too comfortable
But we must also be cautious. A 66% vote in favour of the old liberal order seems like a comfortable margin, but it is significantly smaller than the 82% from 2002, when Jacques Chirac defeated Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie. The direction of travel is still worrying. And while in France the old Republic still has a comfortable margin, it does not have unlimited time to deliver the goods. And in other European countries, that margin is much smaller.
With Macron, European liberal democracy at least has a credible analysis of what has gone wrong over the past decade and an injection of energy towards creating solid solutions.Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
What is heartening is that Macron seems to understand this. His calls for the renewal of the French Republic and the ‘historic reconstruction’ of Europe are exactly what is needed. Unless these institutions start delivering for their people, and are seen to be delivering for their people, they are living on borrowed time. France needs a more flexible, dynamic and inclusive economy. Europe needs substantially better economic governance: governance that is accountable at the level of the entire Union, and not beholden to the electoral calculus of leaders in the Capitals, notably Berlin. Both of these issues require significant institutional overhauls.
The question now is whether Macron can deliver. He has the political will, but he will need to bring the French Assembly and the governments of the other European countries along with him. And that is no small task for a man of relatively little experience. Merkel has an open ear, at least for now. But whether she will move with him remains to be seen. Whether Poland and Hungary can also be brought along for the ride will be even more interesting to see.
All in all, with Macron, European liberal democracy at least has a credible analysis of what has gone wrong over the past decade and an injection of energy towards creating solid solutions. But now the hard work begins. And it will be years before we can say for sure whether liberal democracy in Europe is back on sure footing, or whether Emmanuel Macron was but a false dawn.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim