Daniel Cole

The enemy within: How Europe could react to a Le Pen presidency

Guillermo Iñiguez

7 mins - 18 de Abril de 2022, 09:35

Days away from the second round of the French presidential election, the European Union finds itself facing the abyss once again. Although far-right candidate Marine Le Pen has tamed her discourse with respect to 2017, assuring voters that her political project no longer involves a withdrawal from the EU, her arrival at the Elysée would nonetheless pose an existential threat for the Union: for the first time in its 75-year history, one of the members of the Franco-German alliance would go from leading the European project to heading a war of attrition against it.
With that in mind, how could Brussels react against a hypothetical Le Pen presidency? As The New Statesman’s Jeremy Cliffe recently pointed out, the Union’s response could revolve around three axes: learning from the disastrous management of the rule of law crisis, preventing a French rapprochement with (what remains of) the Visegrad Group, and building a strong political alternative to the Franco-German axis.

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To begin with, the Union would do well in learning from the many mistakes made, throughout the past decade, in responding to democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland. Following Viktor Orbán’s victory in 2010, Brussels opted for an appeasement policy towards the newly formed government: instead of tackling Orbán’s constitutional coup heads-on, the Commission sought to “dialogue” with a regime which, from the very beginning, showed itself indifferent to any such dialogue; similarly, rather than drawing on the legal and political mechanisms contained in the Treaties, Brussels designed a set of new instruments – such as the infamous 2014 Rule of Law Framework – to avoid imposing measures which could trigger a direct confrontation with Budapest.
The institutions’ intention was clear: by avoiding burning their bridges with Orbán, they would de-escalate the supposed “conflict” between Budapest and Brussels, thereby preventing Hungary from straying even further away from Brussels’ political mainstream. And yet the consequences were radically different. Through its refusal to apply its own legal instruments to defend the Union’s fundamental values, the Commission managed to stigmatize said instruments beyond use – Article 7 TEU, for example, became a “nuclear” option to be avoided at all costs. Similarly, months and years of “negotiations” between Brussels and Budapest allowed Orbán to gain time, dismantling Hungary’s democracy while the institutions, stuck in a labyrinth of preventive mechanisms, rule of law reports and parliamentary debates, expressed their “deep concern”.
When Brussels awoke from its slumber, the dinosaur – as in Augustín Monterroso’s celebrated story – was still there: following the 2015 election, the Law and Justice Party’s victory saw Poland join Orbán’s democratic backsliding by embarking on a far-reaching crusade against the country’s judiciary. By the time the EU institutions decided to act against both countries, it was too late: on the one hand, the illiberal alliance between Budapest and Warsaw had formed a fortress of mutual support which Brussels, to the day, has been unable to penetrate; on the other, the threat of a systematic veto to European integration resulted in what Daniel Kelemen famously labelled an ‘authoritarian equilibrium’: a situation in which the ongoing constitutional coup in Brussels and Poland became an uncomfortable price to pay to ensure the Union’s proper functioning.
The rule of law crisis provides, in other words, two fundamental lessons when dealing with a hypothetical Le Pen government. First and foremost, that a Union which decides to step in must do so from the very beginning: letting too much time pass will only weaken its capacity to act, whilst allowing the newly formed French government to find its footing and roll out its political agenda. Secondly, that any such response must be unequivocal. Brussels would certainly do well in offering Paris the proverbial carrot, reminding the newly formed French government of the importance of respecting the Union’s underlying legal principles – for example, the primacy of the Treaties or the legally binding nature of the CJEU’s rulings. Yet it must also be made obvious that any attempt to undermine said legal order will be met with the similarly proverbial stick – that is, with the full force of the Union’s legal, political and economic arsenal, including infringement proceedings or the recently triggered rule of law conditionality mechanism.
Far more complex than its possible legal ramifications, however, are the likely political implications of a Le Pen presidency. A candidate unashamedly close to Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen also belongs to the so-called ‘illiberal international’, the informal alliance formed by parties such as Orbán’s Fidesz, Poland’s Law and Justice or Spain’s Vox. If, in recent years, most of said parties have tamed their Euroscepticism, renouncing their past promises to withdraw from the Union, their manifestos – which call for a gradual dismantling of the European project, turning it into a ‘Europe of sovereign nations’ – pose a monumental threat for Brussels. It is for this reason that, on top of an unequivocal defence of the Treaties, both the EU institutions and its Member States would have to avoid a reconfiguration of anti-European governments around a new Paris-Warsaw-Budapest axis. And the key actor, in this case, could be Poland.
Despite the Polish government’s unconditional loyalty to Orbán ever since 2015, the invasion of Ukraine has triggered a rapid rapprochement with Brussels. Said realignment is, of course, partly owed to the delicate strategic situation of a country whose border with Ukraine makes it particularly vulnerable to a Russian attack. Yet it is also undoubtedly motivated by a clear political calculation: that a closing of ranks with Brussels regarding Russia will allow Warsaw to atone for its past constitutional sins – avoiding, for example, a possible triggering of the conditionality mechanism.
In a Union which lost its traditional Franco-German alliance, adding Poland to a newly formed coalition of medium-sized countries – one which, alongside Germany, incorporated Spain, Italy or Portugal – would not only counteract a possible Le Pen-Orbán front: it would also weaken the French president’s bargaining power in the Council, thereby significantly reducing the likelihood of any far-reaching political reform to the acquis. It would be, in a sense, an ironic end to the Visegrad Group: after seven years of putting spokes in the wheels of European integration, its downfall could neuter a potential victory by Marine Le Pen, one of its main allies on the European stage and the most successful exponent of the Group’s Eurosceptic theses.
Marine Le Pen’s arrival to the Elysée would undoubtedly pose an existential threat for Europe: a political union accustomed to facing external threats could see itself boycotted from within, driven off a cliff by one its key members. Yet if the consequences of a Le Pen victory are difficult to predict, the first round of the French election has made clear two things: that Europe’s enemy is on its very doorstep and that, despite this political reality, Brussels is still unprepared for a Le Pen-governed France. Faced with this risk, Europe cannot allow itself to be overcome, yet again, by events which are no longer far-fetched: it must learn from its mistakes throughout the past decade, both by defining a clear political strategy and by using the entirety of its legal and economic arsenal to make it clear that a Le Pen presidency cannot, under any circumstances, become the beginning of the end of European integration.

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