Executive Director’s Brexit Blog: ‘#Presidentielle2017- Constructing the context of Brexit’

Aberjhani, the American author, poet, and historian, has said of elections that: “When we vote, we participate in the construction of a context”.

I can’t help but think that over the next five months, in the latest in a series of critical elections, European citizens will construct the context of the Brexit negotiations and European politics more widely.

The French electorate went to the polls last Sunday, 23 April, in the latest of these major European elections, for round one of what we now know for certain will be two rounds of voting to elect a new President.  The run of these key elections will continue in Germany, in September, with the election of a Chancellor to the Bundestag, after taking an unscheduled diversion across the water in June for the second UK General Election in as many years.

Over the course of the next few months, I’ll be considering in this ED Blog both the political climate in which each of these elections is taking place, as well as how their outcomes could be critical in constructing the context for the negotiations over Brexit.  Today, we’ll begin with France, with what has been one of the most unpredictable French Presidential elections in some time.

 

The most unique French Presidential elections in living memory

Ever since the hopeful candidates set off on the campaign trail late last year, the path to the Élysée Palace has twisted and turned in a number of unforeseen directions.  Encompassing everything from expenses scandals to mass rallies and holograms; the 2017 Presidential campaign has so far been defined by its constantly changing landscape.

Eventually though, the two candidates who had consistently led in the narrow polling since January emerged with the highest vote shares on Sunday, after just over 36 million votes were cast in a turnout of 78.69 per cent of the French electorate (see table of full election results below); Emmanuel Macron (with 24 per cent of the first round vote share), and Marine Le Pen (who received 21.3 per cent of the ballot), will now contest the Presidential run-off.

Candidate Number of Votes Received Percentage of Vote Share
Mr Emmanuel MACRON 8,657,326 24.01
Ms Marine LE PEN 7,679,493 21.30
Mr François FILLON 7,213,797 20.01
Mr Jean-Luc MÉLENCHON 7,060,885 19.58
Mr Benoît HAMON 2,291,565 6.36
Mr Nicolas DUPONT-AIGNAN 1,695,186 4.70
Mr Jean LASSALLE 435,365 1.21
Mr Philippe POUTOU 394,582 1.09
Mr François ASSELINEAU 332,588 0.92
Ms Nathalie ARTHAUD 232,428 0.64
Mr Jacques CHEMINADE 65,598 0.18
TOTAL 36,058,813 100.00

(Source: http://www.interieur.gouv.fr/)

 

In many ways, regardless of the result on Sunday, 7 May, the established order has already been overturned.  For the first time since the formation of the Fifth Republic, neither of the two candidates to reach the final run-off hail from one of France’s traditional parties of government on the left or right.  But if Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen share a similarity in this aspect, their views and policies diverge wildly on close to all the key issues that have dominated the election campaign thus far.  This divide (which was geographic too in terms of the electoral vote; see map of results below) is arguably never starker than with their views on the EU and Europe; views which could play an important role in deciding the tone of the upcoming negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

 

What a Macron Presidency could mean for Brexit

Emmanuel Macron has led on a ‘pro-Europe platform’.  Macron is a strong advocate of the EU and has committed to “relaunching the European project” in France.  He has also been one of the strongest critics of Brexit, describing it in his election manifesto as a “crime”.  Mr Macron’s resolutely pro-EU and anti-Brexit rhetoric encapsulates how a Macron win in the second round could affect the context in which the Brexit negotiations are carried out in two distinct ways.

On the one hand, Emmanuel Macron has indicated that he would adopt a tough stance on Brexit due to his focus on “defending the integrity” of the EU Single Market.  He has said the following on the subject:

“I am attached to a strict approach to Brexit: I respect the British vote but the worst thing would be a sort of weak EU vis- à-vis the British.  I don’t want a tailor-made approach where the British have the best of two worlds.  That will be too big an incentive for others to leave and kill the European idea, which is based on shared responsibilities.”

On the other hand, some commentators have argued that a Macron win in the run-off would help to dissipate the narrative of a tide of Euroscepticism engulfing the EU, since the Brexit vote in June last year.  Coming as it would in the context of victories against so-called ‘populist’ opposition earlier this year for the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, and late last year for Austrian President, Alexander Van der Bellen.

Indeed, the BBC’s Business Editor, Simon Jack, in a column ruminating on the possible impact of a Macron Presidency on Brexit, has argued that it would demonstrate that the “UK’s antipathy to the EU has, so far, failed to catch on elsewhere” across the EU and “with that in mind, there is less reason to punish the UK in upcoming negotiations as a deterrent to other would-be leavers”.

 

What a Le Pen Presidency could mean for Brexit

Marine Le Pen, in contrast to Emmanuel Macron, has adopted a stance that is fundamentally Eurosceptic in nature.  Le Pen has promised to negotiate with the EU for return of “full sovereignty”, calling for a referendum in France on the country’s membership of the Eurozone.  Le Pen has also set her sights on a French referendum on EU membership if the EU does not radically alter its current constitution after, what she has said, would be six months of tough negotiations with the EU immediately after her election.

To offer this ‘in/out’ referendum to the French electorate, Le Pen would first have to alter France’s own written Constitution which states that “the Republic is part of the European Union”.  Article 89 of the French Constitution requires changes to be put forward by the French government, not the President, which must then be approved by both the Senate and National Assembly.  Only then can the proposed changes to the Constitution be put to the electorate.  So, the path to a French withdrawal from the EU is by no means a given, even if Marine Le Pen does secure the Presidency on 7 May.  It would likely require Marine Le Pen’s (now former) Front National party to win a majority in the French Parliamentary elections, scheduled for June, as well.

Regardless of a possible French withdrawal from the EU, a Marine Le Pen Presidency could dramatically alter the context of Brexit.  Whereas, if the argument is followed that a Macron victory could in one sense lead to a cooling of tensions surrounding Euroscepticism, a Le Pen victory may once again fan Eurosceptic flames ignited by Brexit.  Brexit itself could then become a renewed and dominant signifier of an existential threat to the future of the EU and the negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal may then take place in this heightened context, alongside Le Pen-led talks with the EU on France’s future.

 

A construction of a new European political climate and context for the Brexit talks

Whoever is elected to the Élysée in May, the votes of the French electorate will have an effect on the context of the upcoming negotiations between the EU and UK over the UK’s impending departure, as too will the upcoming elections in the UK, scheduled for 8 June 2017, and in Germany, scheduled for 24 September 2017, in a myriad of ways.

We will have to wait until 7 May to see what the next steps towards this construction will be…

 

Noelle O Connell
EM Ireland Executive Director
28 April 2017

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