By Beatriz Becerra Basterrechea*
(EurActiv) — For years, the stupidest thing a candidate standing for election could do was speak about Europe. Any junior communications advisor would tell you this. It made no difference if you explained that global problems needed global solutions or that European legislation limited national governments’ capacity to act. The advisor would retort that no one understood this. And if you evoked the shattered Europe of 1945 to illustrate the historical meaning of the Union, he would say with exasperation, “People don’t want you to tell them about the past, they’re only interested in their problems in the here-and-now.”
I wonder what these advisors would think of Emmanuel Macron, France’s man of the moment. An independent candidate in the Presidential elections, Macron talks about Europe with all the groups that he meets, including students at Berlin’s Humboldt University, where he gave a lecture in perfect English in early January. Marine Le Pen then attacked him for speaking in a foreign language to a foreign audience. “Poor France,” she lamented. This is more than anecdotal. Macron is not the first politician to have given the EU a prominent position in his message: the National Front has been doing this for decades.
Geert Wilders and Nigel Farage also do this. We have paid very dearly for ignoring them in the belief that they would not amount to much. But Brexit has happened and Donald Trump has been elected. The dismantling of the EU is a viable anti-political project. Nationalist populism has succeeded in imposing its narrative. And while most of Europe’s politicians and commentators remain trapped in old habits, Macron has understood that it’s time to take up the challenge. “Do you, the people, want to talk about Europe, globalisation and nationalism?” Well, let’s do it then. In French and in English.
An expert in Hegel after graduating in philosophy, a pianist with six years of music school, an investment banker with a solid grounding in mathematics, an inspector of finances trained at the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, minister of economy under President François Hollande, married to his former teacher (19 years his senior), Emmanuel Macron can say, before reaching 40, that he has lived. He has the sort of cosmopolitan profile that makes populists very nervous (speaking English, in Germany!) He cannot be said to have been a lamb reared in the fold of any party or trade union. He has no mortgages and has received a broad and varied education.
A few months ago, shortly after Brexit, Macron left the government and went it alone. He set up his their own electoral platform ‘En Marche !’ (On the Move) and quickly gained the support of thousands of French people, showing that there was, and remains, a rational, accessible and emotional message for those who wish to see constructive change and an updating of what has made Europe the best place in the world to live. The opinion polls currently give him 20% of the vote and climbing, tied with François Fillon (candidate for the right-wing Republican party) and catching up with Le Pen (National Front). The nomination of the very left-wing Benoît Hamon as Socialist Party candidate could benefit him. The polls also say that that if he can get through to the second round he would beat both Fillon and Le Pen.
The Front National leader said some time ago that the division between right and left has lost importance. Macron agrees, but that’s as far as comparisons between them can go. He’s taken up the challenge and understands that new rules apply. Others can go on criticising themselves, stressing the harm done by the Commission, the exasperating coldness of the Brussels bureaucrats and the lack of a response to the crisis. The populists and nationalists are rallying around our self-criticism, planting their flag and building a beachhead.
Have you been paying attention to them lately? Trump, Farage and Le Pen go on about freedom until the cows come home. They have made the word their own while we were busy with self-criticism. It’s time we accepted that the rules have changed, looked them in the eye and showed them up. Freedom? Europe is freedom. And prosperity. This is what Macron is arguing.
The results of recent elections have brought us back to the old debate between emotion and reason. It is very comfortable to think of Trump’s election or Brexit as victories of emotion. The evidence shows that there is no clear dividing line between the two. We need to act and to feel and appeal to emotion. But we need to do this from the starting point of reason and truth. Macron has shown that it is possible. Self-criticism? Yes of course, but it should also be positive.
People remember stories. There are few stories more exciting than the construction of Europe, the history of a shattered continent that put aside its ancestral differences to rise again, to give the world an example of solidarity and cooperation. Let us say that Europe is the best place in the world to live, because of its combination of freedom, prosperity and economic security, which has no equal anywhere in the world. We, the Europeans, built all of this. Should we not feel justifiably proud?
Traditional parties have shown they are unable to fight the populists. Their strategy has been to appropriate parts of their message and proposals. On the right Sarkozy stood in the Gaullist primaries on a platform mimicking Le Pen; on the left, Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour leader, has embraced Brexit and adopted an anti-immigrant message. Podemos and Syriza stand with the far right in glorifying old-fashioned national sovereignty. Macron, however, recently pointed out that the only effective sovereignty in today’s world is European sovereignty; that is an open, inclusive and tolerant society.
And now that the nationalist-populist vote has become a reality and gained in strength it has taken form, opening up the possibility of a European counter-attack. Now that Europe can no longer be taken for granted it is time to defend it with something more than bureaucratic jargon. Now is the time — as Donald Tusk, President of the European Council just mentioned — to show our democratic and civic pride in the most worthy political project ever known, and to project it into the future as a way to give confidence to a European public in need of reassurances.
Macron winning the French presidency would be more than just a breath of fresh air for the European Union: it would an undeniable victory of Enlightenment values against the populist threat. To be clear, this is why Emmanuel Macron is the anti-Trump.
*Beatriz Becerra is an independent Spanish MEP in the liberal ALDE group.