Europe’s Pivotal Choice?

French and German Elections and the Future of the EU


Mikołaj Dowgielewicz, director general and permanent representative of the European Investment Bank to the EU institutions, ECFR Member

Sylvie Kauffmann, „Le Monde” commentator, ECFR Member

Ulrich Speck, Senior Research Fellow, Elcano Royal Institute, Brussels

The Warsaw office of ECFR together with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung had the pleasure to organise a debate titled Europe’s Pivotal Choice? French and German Elections and the Future of the EU with two ECFR Board members: Sylvie Kauffmann, Le Monde commentator, and Mikołaj Dowgielewicz, Director General and Permanent Representative of the European Investment Bank to EU institutions. The debate was moderated by the head of ECFR Warsaw office, Piotr Buras.

Mr Buras opened the discussion and who noted two main trends in European politics: the weakening of its once unassailable liberal foundations and the increasing importance of domestic politics in determining the course of the EU. Both the upset victory of François Fillon in French right-wing presidential primaries and the relative weakening of Angela Merkel’s position in German politics make for particularly interesting and fateful electoral races in the next year.

As Ms Kauffmann noted, Francois Fillon won as a representative of conservative, traditional Catholics and benefited from the backlash over Nicolas Sarkozy’s move to the right and unsuccessful attempt to present himself as an anti-establishment candidate. Mr Dowgielewicz called his electoral platform “rigorist”, based on fiscal austerity and lacking measures such as deregulation to combat structural unemployment.

Fillon may find himself pitted against a far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, in the second round. Both panellists were somewhat bearish on Le Pen’s chances to actually win the elections, given the strength of Fillon’s candidacy with voters she is trying to reach, but Mr Dowgielewicz argued the fragmentation of French left may allow her Front National to gain significant presence in the parliament. Ms Kauffmann noted that although Le Pen was buoyed by Donald Trump’s election, the two operate in different context and exhibit significant stylistic differences, with Le Pen aiming for respectability and lacking an established mainstream party base that Trump enjoyed.

Mr Buras chimed in on German pre-election political landscape, underscoring that though Merkel’s position had been weakened, she still enjoys majority support and the grand CDU-SPD coalition is likely to stay in power after 2017. However, this may lead to a gradual crumbling of the political centre, as voters failing to find a mainstream alternative to Merkel’s policies may begin to support far right or populist forces. As for the SPD, Martin Schulz announced return to German politics provides the party with a good candidate for chancellor. However, his opponent, Sigmar Gabriel, can boast greater support among immigration-weary parts of the electorate the party is trying to reach. Though the SPD could try to form a coalition with the Greens and Die Linke, such an enterprise would be shaky due to weak legitimacy of a coalition headed by party other than the election winner and mutual distrust and policy disagreements between the parties.

Mr Dowgielewicz also mentioned the upcoming Italian referendum and Dutch elections. The former will probably result in a defeat of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and result in a decision-making paralysis at the moment when neither Italy, nor the Eurozone can afford it, given the precarious situation of Italian banks. As for the former, it remains to be seen if mainstream parties in the Netherlands will be able to secure a sufficient majority and form a coalition.

Debating France, both panellists agreed that François Hollande was quite shrewd in his foreign policy, which saw closer ties with Poland and a careful balancing of French role as a global power and EU member-state. If Fillon wins the elections, the future of European sanctions on Russia will be put into question: enforcing them is impossible without French participation and Fillon is on record as advocating lifting them. Mr Dowgielewicz argued, however, that conflicts of interests and outrage over Russian activities in Syria may hinder any significantly more pro-Russian foreign policy and warned against taking campaign promises at face value. Ms Kauffmann added that Fillon, though not an anti-European politician, is a sovereignist and prominently uses the theme of “nation” in his rhetoric. There is no such ambiguity in Le Pen’s views, according to Kauffmann, as she is openly against French membership in the Euro zone and the European Union itself. Her voters also seem unperturbed by accusations of her links with Russia.

As for the European Union, Mr Dowgielewicz argued that it is stuck in crisis mode, further compounded by the Brexit vote, since 2007, and it will be prohibitively difficult to gain assent of all members for more ambitious integration projects. He expressed scepticism over the prospects of institutionalised cooperation in the Eurozone beyond current plans of a common unemployment insurance and investment vehicles. He also argued that European migration policy will trend towards closed external borders and underscored negative linkages between the stances of Central European countries on refugee crisis and their bargaining position in budget negotiations, whereas Kauffmann focused on the linkages between European solidarity in migration and defence.

The panellists also tackled the issue of French-Polish relations. Mr Dowgielewicz characterised them as exceptionally close under Hollande, but relatively marginal as France lacks sophisticated policy on Central Europe beyond trade. Ms Kauffmann demurred citing among other close relations between France and Polish opposition in the 1980s and links between Polish and French media.