Never before has the European Union come so close to disaster than this week. And even if it narrowly avoids disaster in Sunday’s French presidential elections, the EU will still emerge seriously diminished and it will have to change.
We are walking on eggshells, so when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán tells the domestic press in an Easter Sunday interview that Hungary is “not an island” like the United Kingdom and would not leave the EU, even this is now perceived as good news.
In fact, EU institutions already last week tacitly gave Orbán carte blanche to silence his opposition, when they did nothing to stop him shutting down Budapest’s private Central European University, in exchange for this lukewarm statement – and for staying put.
The EU has reached the point where it is more afraid of Hungary’s disapproval (such as Orbán’s current postal survey on EU policies, dubbed “Let’s Stop Brussels”), than the Hungarian government is of the EU’s.
This, on a smaller scale, is the same story as in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan narrowly won his referendum on Sunday, vastly expanding the powers of his office.
Orbán and Erdoğan have many things in common, from the synthesis of nationalism and populism for a catch-all ideology, to the skilful use of state rents to gain control over the economy and society in an unprecedented manner.
Erdoğan has laid the grounds for his referendum, and a future one, on the death penalty, for many years, quietly dismantling any independent controls on his executive from other state institutions.
But if you look back at the European Union progress reports on Turkey, you will not find a single reflection of what has been going on for years – the implementation of a subversive constitutional political project, one of state capture and deliberate replacement of the bourgeois, secular, urban elite with a provincial, Islamist one, annihilating the rule of law in the process.
All the EU saw was the risk of an army coup, until the aborted coup last year finally showed that the army, or what was left of it, was merely defending the constitutional status quo – and itself.
With keener vision, perhaps the secular democratic opposition in Turkey could have been steered to success on a path closer to the EU years ago but now it is too late. Turkish democracy is slipping away, and with it, the myth of the EU’s transformative power over candidate countries.
The French situation is at a juncture where the worst can be still be averted. But there is hardly anyone with the foresight and courage to act.
Pollsters do not even dare to project a second round between the two main anti-EU candidates running on the extreme right and the extreme left, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, although this is becoming more than a theoretical possibility every day.
Campaigning, they have brought together the anti-EU vote at 43% already. One should not forget that the EU has been at risk for the past twenty-five years in France, after a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 gained only 51% approval, and one on a European Constitution in 2005 was soundly defeated with 55% against.
The EU is also a contender in this French election, and the most endangered one, it seems.
Even if the EU is diminished by great numbers of faithless in France, the real disaster – Mélenchon in a second voting round with Le Pen, due to the absolute nullity of Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon–could be avoided if embattled centre-right candidate François Fillon were to step down and the centrist option, Emmanuel Macron, were adopted now, not after a risky second tour.
As in the case of Hillary Clinton, to bestow the status of saviour on a candidate marred by all the corruption of a political establishment is truly goading the wrath of the people. Are there still people who do not understand that populists win by playing on an anti-elite sentiment that is genuine and not groundless?
We do not know the intensity of this anti-elite feeling any more than we did when Donald Trump beat Clinton because pollsters do not ask about it.
One would never guess by reading the last Eurobarometer on “The future of Europe” that Europe could meet its end this week, as anything disagreeable (like corruption of the elites) has been removed from the questions on Europeans’ concerns.
A Pew survey after Brexit, however, found that only 38% of the French still support the EU project, with over 60% against. Hopefully some voters have not yet grasped that the EU is part of everything and they will vote on what they believe to be other topics – or we will have lost already.
The right wing politicians who have backed Fillon so far are making the mistake of their lives. They should switch to Macron immediately. If they only had decent analysts and good research they would see in the last weeks’ polls the terrible risk to which they are exposing Europe.
Even if they manage to beat the odds and their man enters the second round with Le Pen, could France and Europe be saved by one who has his suits paid by another, lives in a castle he cannot afford and brokers business meetings with Vladimir Putin?
And when exposed as trespassing the private-public border by putting his family on public payroll (which is illegal in other EU countries), he shows no remorse, just rancour for being exposed?
The old French political elites, for whom such practices were far from unknown, seem to have lost their instinct for survival, if in a new European environment, surrounded by predators, they put themselves and the entire EU in harm’s way as they do this week.
This article was originally published in EurActiv on 18 April 2017.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.