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The way forward for the EU – Entice people, embrace change, engage the world

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The aim of this paper is to contribute to academic and public debate on issues critical to the future of the European Union as well as to outline recommendations addressed to EU institutions and member state decision-makers.

This concise paper may only serve as an introduction to some bottom-line ideas, without trying to summarize the ongoing academic and political debate on the subject. Nor does it claim to present extensively formulated supporting arguments for the policy actions it recommends. This has to come once the first rounds of discussions on the viability and or the necessity of the outlined actions have taken place. In most cases, actions proposed are not entirely new to public debate.

This paper does not present several sets of possible policy choices to select from, nor does it elaborate on the different “visions on the future of the EU”. It provides one single set of recommended actions, without pondering the chances of implementation.

Federalism in the EU-related discourse is contentious, and lacks a stable definitive value, therefore misleading and unhelpful, I would therefore not relate to it, nevertheless most of the policy recommendations in this proclamation point towards a more unified Union.

The European Union has a remarkably charged political agenda in a turbulent world. Russia is more and more assertive, there is a probably prolonged military crisis in Ukraine, political and military situation is escalating in Europe’s southern and south-eastern neighbourhood with imminent impact on Europe’s societies. The spectre of Grexit reflects the fact that there are fundamental flaws in the Euro project as far as its long-term sustainability is concerned which necessitates further political and economic policy reforms at EU level. Brexit on the other-hand (although the UK’s case is admittedly extreme) is a clear indication of popular disenchantment from the idea European integration. The above factors indeed hinder coordinated action to counter the ever-stronger popular sentiment and well-articulated political agendas that question the usefulness of European integration and sometimes even the basic European values. European institutions and member states suffer to focus and face these challenges including the rising anti-European and in some cases anti-democratic tendencies that will pose significant risks to European integration in the medium-term.

The key message of this proclamation is that the EU does not only need to overhaul its political priorities – which it normally does from time to time – but also needs a new approach towards its very existence, especially the way it interacts with the world and with its own citizens. Similar messages have been reiterated for a long time now by the academia and by some ranks of EU and national political classes, political action nevertheless has been scarce and slow. This to a great extent explains the rise of anti-European or Euroskeptic views.

The author of this paper holds that an overhaul of the functioning of the EU as well as of the general approach to the raison d’etre of European integration is necessary for at least three interconnected reasons:

-firstly, to establish a new societal contract by establishing trust in a disenchanted public without whom no major reforms will be possible, be it economic or political; (“Entice people”)

-secondly, to manage inherent tensions stemming from economic (e.g.: Eurozone long-term sustainability), institutional and political (both central and especially member state) imperfections that loom large in a more and more unpredictable global environment;

(“Embrace change”)

-thirdly, to reverse Europe’s gradual slide to global irrelevance (or put in a different way: to harness its economic might in geopolitics by a stronger Union foreign and military policy profile), moreover to reinforce its failing international competitiveness. (“Engage the world”)

The key determinants of EU-level policy-setting are the following:

-A new geopolitical order is on the rise. Pax Americana has started to give way to a new world order whose defining features are very unpredictable but which most probably be a more unstable one than we live in today by the major rearrangement of the global equilibrium following the rise of new powers, and with a potentially significant level of hostile competition between the key actors.

-Inside the EU major new geopolitical dynamics are gathering importance which includes a quasi-dominant role of Germany, a weakening France, a UK drifting away and in general a more and more heterogenetic and multiple-speed EU with institutions still in the process of self-redefinition.

-European societies are ageing. The old-age dependency ratio will double by 2040. At the same time, the average fertility rate in Europe is below reproduction. These factors represent serious challenges to the long-term sustainability of the European way of life as know it. Immigration as a tool to face and counter the spectre of unsustainability, mainly due to issues of social integration, as it is demonstrated in several EU member states, raises significant social and political challenges if managed badly.

-European economies and societies under pressure will probably be more susceptible to anti-EU sentiment and propaganda.

-The EU, the home to some half a billion people has no story to tell, or rather its story does not reach its citizens.

Based on the above premises, the EU needs:

-A way more unified diplomatic approach to global political developments and clear political stance on the final boundaries of the Union;

-A stronger capacity to exercise hard power; European army

-A stronger and more unified internal security policy;

-A more effective immigration policy and policies to make integration successful;

-Effective responses to negative demographic trends;

-An institutional and political setup and an economic policy framework that guarantees the long-term survival of the common currency, including a separate Eurozone budget;

-A strongly coordinated energy policy including energy diplomacy that guarantees independence, sustainability and competitiveness;

-A stronger sense of ownership and self-identification of European citizens with the European project;

-A new budgetary arrangement, a budget with a new approach that reflects this policy overhaul including the phasing out of controversial policies such as CAP and a fundamental reform of the cohesion policy and introducing a revenue that creates ownership in the society;

The list of actions proposed necessitate fundamental alterations in the way the EU exists. These alterations will probably be precipitated (or maybe to the contrary: jeopardized) by “inbuilt” political developments that are only partly foreseeable (Brexit, Grexit, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey), partly belong to the realm of a less and less predictable geopolitical environment. These alterations often will take the form of new institutional arrangements. Also efforts to reinforce the currently almost inexistent EU-wide political (democratic) sphere are poised to get stronger – in parallel with the continuous rise of anti-EU sentiment and the political articulation thereof by member state political actors.

One has to be realistic: the list of proposed action provided in this paper is not what will be, many of these suggestions seem radical and certainly contested at this point. Most probably member states as usual will look at any to do list with the well-known mind set: how could an almost certainly hopeless Treaty change be avoided, how one can muddle-through on a business as usual basis? Well, this would not lead us any far in the long-term, only towards disarray, insignificance and instability. Some (both in politics and academia) are fascinated by proposing new institutionally focused arrangements to reform the EU. While these are most of the time reasonable suggestions, people simply don’t care. They do not care or even understand why a bi-chamber EP incorporating the Council or a Eurozone budget (so far referred to in the Euro-discourse under as the ‘fiscal compact’ to make sure nobody understands it) is the magic solution. One should therefore be bold to offer things that are tangible, meaningful and educative for the citizen. One should not cynically pretend that people are fully aware of what is going on in the politics let alone international relations, they do need better information and much broader involvement otherwise no major reforms will be possible in the future.

The following is only a list of policy actions deemed desirable for a stronger and more successful Union. It is not a political itinerary, nor does it discuss in detail how these actions should be put in place. Otherwise – as experience shows – it we would end up in a scattered discourse on how this could (not) be done for political and institutional reasons before even a proper appreciation of the proposed actions could take place. Most of the proposed actions are not realistic for the EU28 as a group, they are instead policy options for member states (should things develop in that direction) of the “core”.

Next to some items on the list “B” “T” or “C” signs are visible. “B” denotes that the proposed action involves major budgetary reform and or funding, while “T” means that the action necessitates a new Treaty. “C” represents that it is only or primarily realistic or relevant for a core group of member states that are ready and able to reinforce their unity.

ENTICE PEOPLE

Getting European societies on board is a sine qua non condition for any major change. Endless complaining about the remoteness of the EU has led us nowhere and clearly no ineffective and underfinanced communication campaigns are the solution either. Instead the following actions need to be considered:

•Create post of European (Eurozone) speaker position in national parliaments (who preferably does not bear the host country’s nationality) with the right of intervention if European issues debated (T) (C);

•Introduce the instrument of European referendum – one single pan-EU referendum on the same day counted as a whole on key EU issues (T);

•Replace low-profile bureaucrats at the top of EU Representations, create high profile EU presence in capitals (C);

•If a project is financed by 51% EU it should be inaugurated by EU representative;

•Increase Erasmus spending by at least five times (B);

•Introduce preferably mandatory European values curriculum at elementary and secondary schools;

•Finish with national party lists at EP elections, vote on pan-European platform same day all across EU (T);

•Create a special channel of national parliaments at EP – as MEPs are less and less national, MPs should have a vehicle which is visible and effective to intervene at EP debate. This must be much stronger an instrument than ad-hoc invitations; an institutionalised and permanent solution is preferable (T) (C);

•Elect President of the European Commission or the European Council directly by citizens (T);

•Promote EU values abroad (joint EU cultural and political institutes – having in mind Alliance Francaise, Goethe, etc) (B);

•Facilitate national public and political debates on new European reform initiatives such as the recent one (June 2015) by the German and French economy ministers.

•Run EU joint teams (or individual Olympians) in up to 10 percent of Olympic sports by the 2024 Olympic Games;

•Support language teaching and learning; acknowledge reality: English is lingua franca of the EU, support it (B);

•Set up national offices of the Court of Justice to deal local legal matters with EU relevance more promptly and transparently (T);

•Support Europe-related news broadcasting by national broadcasters. Euronews (in a significantly enhanced quality) minutes in local channels. (B);

EMBRACE CHANGE

Here I mean a much more comprehensive change than normally envisaged by the EU in its subsequent Treaty changes, or new policy initiatives and (most of the time unfulfilled) grand programmes on a change as usual course.

•Embrace reality which is inevitable for the long-term success of the EU: declare existence of multiple (two)-speed Europe (instead of deleting the reference to an “ever closer union” in the Treaty as the UK requests), and make the institutional setup best fitted to embrace it (T);

•Let UK have a special status (T);

•Let Greece exit Eurozone (T);

•Make Eurozone exit legally possible and planned (T);

•Establish Eurozone budget of 3-5% of Eurozone GDP to use as macroeconomic buffer (T) (B) (C);

The EU budget is not only small but is not at all designed to tackle macroeconomic shocks and crisis in a monetary union, which needs a puffer for shocks and a stable transfer pool which can be deployed in a prompt manner (this may even include pan-Eurozone social benefit schemes as well.)

•Introduce European tax by unionizing a certain percentage point of national VAT rates and thereby finish with member state membership fee. (This can be budget neutral for member states at the end of the day and at the same time underpins the sense of ownership in the society). (T) (B) (C);

The annual EU budget is €142bn (2014 figures) – a large sum in absolute terms, but only about 1% of the GDP generated by EU economies every year. Traditional own resources usually represent about 12% (10,14% in 2013) and the VAT-base related own resource about 10% (9,38% in 2013) of the total budget. At present European budget is financed mostly by member states as a membership or rather ownership fee. Citizens are completely detached from the act of contributing to the common EU budget. “No representation without taxation”. In the proposed new system (European tax) some percentage points from the VAT (standard) rate applicable in member states is payed by the citizen to the EU budget. (It is important to note that this proposed revenue source is completely different from the present levy on national harmonised VAT bases which constitute a resource of the EU budget). This solution is more or less budget-neutral for member states since this source supplements the previous member state contributions (citizen’s money in disguise by the way). Citizens’ act to finance the EU budget (by buying a product or a service) should be clearly indicated for them on every price-tag. By the member state fee terminated, ownership is delegated to people. In this scheme VAT rates do not have to be augmented either only divided into national (say 18%) and EU (2%) shares. Obviously there are currently major differences among member states’ net positions in relation to the EU budget. This has to be calculated with when fine-tuning any new schemes.

•Establish Eurozone finance minister with defined veto rights over national budgets (T) (C);

A Monetary Union without a genuine economic and some degree of a political union is not sustainable. The Euro needs to be accompanied by a solid European economic governance with sufficient own resources and policy leverage. This entails a separate Eurozone budget, an EU treasury headed by a Eurozone finance minister with veto power over national budgets, the transformation of ESM into a European Monetary Fund, finalising the Banking Union, issuance of Eurobonds.

•Cut back CAP drastically (B);

The European Union will spend 373,2 billion EUR on the Common Agricultural Policy between 2014-2020. Although it indicates an 11% decrease compared to the previous EU programming period, CAP still has one of the highest shares – 38.9% – in the total EU budget until 2020. (Approximately, three quarters of the CAP budget is devoted to market related expenditures and direct payments, while one quarter for rural development.) This has to change: a drastic cut in especially direct payments needs to take place.

•Decrease and rationalize cohesion policy spending and establish more possibilities for rapid suspension in case of misuse, fraud or corruption (T);

The efficiency and usefulness of regional policy funds are controversial, dead-weight is very high, moreover they sometimes contribute to corruptive practices.

•Establish full-fledged Energy Union;

•Promote industries, technologies to cater for and institutional arrangements best suited for an ageing society;

•Establish European demography Figure (minister) to initiate and co-ordinate ageing-related policies and to deal with cross-generation tensions in the EU, helping member states to carry out tough reforms and cuts back in the welfare systems (T).

ENGAGE THE WORLD

Without credible hard power capabilities and with its soft power potential seriously underutilized the EU is scoring well under its global weight. The world is becoming less predictable and more turbulent especially at the Union’s imminent borders and close neighbourhood. Illegal immigration related issues put a pressure on European societies. Immigration’s societal consequences and relevant EU and member state policy responses are getting prominence in the daily life of EU citizens and in EU-policy discourse.

•Establish a European army in the medium to long term; (T) (C);

The European Parliament adopted the Synchronized Armed Forces Europe (SAFE) concept in 2009 to create a scheme for joint civilian and military structures and forces under EU leadership on the voluntary basis. This initiative advocates a Defence Ministers Council and a free service based European soldier status law. SAFE would be operated on joint training, tactics and procedures approved by the participating member states. Actual implementation has been almost none but the Russian aggression in Ukraine changes things. The European Corps (Eurocorps) in Strasbourg and the Corps Headquarters in Münster and Szcezin are existing elements to build upon.

•Member state should stop military spending cuts and they should aim for synergy (B);

The European defence capabilities have been gradually reduced over the years. One and a half million soldiers served in the EU member countries in 2013, half a million less than in 2006. EU countries spent only 190 billion euro (12% of total world spending) for military purposes. From 2006 to 2013, the European defence spending decreased by 15% (€ 32 billion). World military expenditure in 2013 was 1.747 billion $, around 2.4% of World GDP. However, China (188 billion US $) and Russia (88 billion US $) continuously increases the military budget. 80% of the European defence spending is by France, Germany, United Kingdom, who also reduce their military budgets.

•Reform CFSP: do away with unanimity, or at least make prompt actions possible by an easily applicable flexible institutional solution for a group of member states, something similar but more flexible than the so-called reinforced cooperation. (T) (C);

The new functions brought about by the Lisbon Treaty are modest innovations. The High Representative is very far from a European Foreign Minister, so is the European External Action Service from a European Foreign Ministry.

•Reform EU immigration policy, render it more effective, and base it on a way longer-term oriented policy approach that encompasses factors of sustainability (in a broad sense including long-term demographic and budgetary considerations) and societal sentiment (B);

For 2014-20, the overall Home Affairs budget amounts to only EUR 9.26 billion. Immigration policy is not only underfinanced but remains fragmented in the EU marred by conflicts of policy objectives, namely the paradox of the free movement, solidarity and security. The issue of legal and illegal immigration and refugees and even terrorism are often fudged in the minds of people which is sometimes reinforced by demagogic and or Euroskeptic national politics. At the same time, the growing feeling of insecurity in the society and also the failures in the integration of migrant communities in European societies are key issues to face. In 2014 276000 migrants entered the EU irregularly, which represent an increase of 138 percent compared to 2013. The number of asylum applicants registered in the EU has also increased significantly in 2014 (626.000 applications). The mandate of the EU agency EASO (European Asylum Support Office) should be significantly expanded to make it a proper Common European Asylum Service. In general for migration and asylum matters more resources have to be deployed at EU level. A special representative on migration for the External Action Service is to be established.

•Reinforce Frontex significantly (B).

Hungarian economist, PhD in international relations. Based in Brussels for fourteen years as diplomat and member of EU commissioners’ cabinets. Two times visiting fellow of Wilson Center in Washington DC. University professor and author of books on EU affairs and geopolitics. Head of department, National University of Public Administration, Budapest.

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Is European humanity skin deep?

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At the border crossing between Ukraine and Moldova at Palanca, refugees stand in line. © UNICEF/Vincent Tremeau

When talking about security the most common line of thought tends to be war and the actors involved in the attack, however, all the people who had regular lives within those territories that are jeopardized are as important. With the increasing tensions and armed conflicts happening within the Twenty First Century, the movement of people searching for shelter has increased. More asylum seekers leave their home countries every single day and contemporary politics is still struggling to find a way to catch up. Europe, history wise, is the zone of the world that deals with more refugees wanting to enter the continent due to different factors: geography, proximity, democratic systems, level of development and more. Nevertheless, with the Russia-Ukraine conflict, true sentiments towards refugees are now being put on display.

Even though all refugees are fleeing their countries because their lives are in mortal danger, authorities and government officials do not seem to care. Processes to apply for the refugee status are getting harder and harder. In Europe, to apply for a refugee passport, people are asked for identifications, online questionaries and many other unrealistic aspects that if not answered correctly, the whole process is cancelled. It is ridiculous to believe that when people are scaping in order to stay alive, they will take under consideration all these requirements to receive help, sometimes even from neighboring countries. Which inevitably leads to the following question: why are refugees accepted based on the legality of their applications and not of their status?

By 2016, nearly 5.2 million refugees reached European shores, which caused the so called refugee crisis. They came mainly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq: countries torn apart by armed conflicts. Similarly, with Russia’s invasion over the Ukraine in 2022, only few days deep within the fighting,  874,000 people had to flee their homes. Nonetheless, the issue seems to be that, for Europe, not all refugees are the same. When the refugee crisis in 2015 was declared, the European Union called for stopping and detaining all arriving refugees for around 18 months. There was a strong reluctancy from Europeans towards offering them shelter. On the contrary, countries such as Poland and Slovakia have said that Ukrainian refugees fleeing will be accepted without passports, or any valid travel documents due to the urgency of the situation. Therefore, stating with their actions, that Ukrainian refugees are more valuable or seem to be more worthy of help than refugees from Asia, Africa, or the Middle East.

Correspondingly, it is true that not all countries inside Europe deal and act the same way towards refugees, be that as it may, with the current refugee crisis it has been proved that they all share strong sentiments of xenophobia and racism. For instance, Hungary is a country that refused to admit refugees coming from outside Europe since 2015. In 2018, Prime Minister Viktor Orban described non-European refugees as “Muslim invaders” and “poison” to society, in comparison with Ukrainian refugees who are being welcomed without hesitation. In the same way, Jarosław Kaczyński, who served as Prime Minister of Poland and is the leader of the Law and Justice party, in 2017 said that accepting asylum seekers from Syria would be dangerous and would “completely change our culture and radically lower the level of safety in our country”. Furthermore, Germany in 2015 with Chancellor Angela Merkel in charged said that they would accept one million of Syrians. Although, as time passed, Europe’s solution was to make a deal with Turkey, who is not part of the European Union, to close the migrant route. Moreover, the promise of letting refugees integrate into German society was not fulfilled since. Seven year later, an impressive amount of refugees are still in camps and centers, with their lives frozen in time. Sadly, most European governments gambled towards the idea of sending them back once the armed conflict was over, without caring for the aftermath of war’s destruction.

The common narrative until now pushed by leaders, politicians, and mass media has been that Ukrainians are prosperous, civilized, middle class working people, but refugees coming from the Middle East are terrorists, and refuges from Africa are simply too different. Despite, refugees are all people who share similar emotions and struggle to grasp the fact that their lives may never be the same; having lost their homes, friends, family and so much more. Plus, being selectively welcomed based on their religion, skin color or nationality by the continent which’s complete rhetoric is universal rights, just adds another complex layer to the issue. Conjointly, the displacement of people due to war displays how regular individuals are always the ones who suffer the most in consequence to the interests of the few that represent larger powers. Hence, greed, envy, and cruelty are stronger than recognized, even in a developed continent such as Europe.

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What Everyone Should Know About Preventing Ethnic Violence: The Case of Bosnia

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Image source: srebrenica.org.uk

When the Balkans spiraled into violence and genocide in the 90’s, many wondered what caused this resurgence in militant ethnic nationalism and how a similar situation may be countered.

***

The 1990’s were a vibrant decade, that is unless you were living in the Balkans. 1995 was especially bad, as the 11th of July of that year marked the Srebrenica Massacre, which saw Serbian soldiers murder over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims over the span of two weeks. This shocked the world, as it was the first case of a European country resorting to extreme violence and genocide on ethnic lines since World War II. After World War II, the idea that a European country would resort to genocide was unthinkable. As Balkan nations continue to see the consequences of the massacre after over 25 years, it is increasingly evident that more needs to be done to curb ethnic violence.

We must first investigate key causes of ethnic violence. According to V.P. Gagnon, the main driver of ethnic violence is elites that wish to stay in power. Ethnic nationalism is easy to exploit, as creating a scapegoat is extremely effective for keeping elites in power. This is exactly what happened in Yugoslavia, which had previously seen high levels of tolerance and intermarriage in more mixed areas that saw the worst violence during the war. Stuart J. Kaufman argues that elites may take advantage of natural psychological fears of in-group extinction, creating group myths, or stereotypes, of outgroups to fuel hatred against them. While they may take different approaches to this issue, Gagnon and Kaufman agree that the main drivers of ethnic violence are the elites.

David Lake and Donald Rothchild suggest that the main driver of ethnic conflict is collective fears for the future of in-groups. Fear is one of the most important emotions we have because it helps secure our existence in a hostile world. However, fear can easily be exploited by the elites to achieve their personal goals. In a multiethnic society such as Yugoslavia, the rise of an elite that adheres to the prospects of a single ethnic group could prove dangerous and sometimes even disastrous. The destruction of Yugoslavian hegemony under Josip Broz Tito and the resulting explosion of ethnic conflict at the hands of Serbian elites in Bosnia underline this because of the immense fear this created.

Regions with high Serb populations in Bosnia sought independence from the rest of the country when they found themselves separated from Serbia by the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Republika Srpska was formed by these alienated Serbs. The leadership and elites in Serbia riled up the Serb population of Republika Srpska by stereotyping and demonizing Bosnian Muslims as “descendants of the Turkish oppressors”. This scared the Serbs in Bosnia so much so that they obeyed the elites of Serbia in supporting and fighting for the independence of Republika Srpska by any means necessary. As was seen in Srebrenica, they were not opposed to genocide.

We know how the elites fuel ethnic tensions to secure power as well of the devastating effects of these tensions reaching their boiling point. But what could be done to address ethnic conflict? David Welsh suggests that a remedy for ethnic conflict could be the complete enfranchisement of ethnic minorities and deterrence towards ethnic cleansing. This means that we must ensure that ethnic minorities are able to have a say in a democratic system that caters to all ethnicities equally. Fostering aversion to genocide is also vital toward addressing ethnic conflict because it is the inevitable result of unchecked ethnic conflict.

There is also the issue of members of ethnic groups voting for candidates and parties on ethnic lines. For example, in the United States, White American voters have shown to prefer White candidates over African American candidates, and vice versa. Keep in mind that the United States has a deep history of ethnic conflict, including the centuries-long subjugation of African Americans by White Americans.

Ethnic violence is horrifying and destructive, but it can be prevented. The first measure would be the establishment of a representative democracy, where members of all ethnicities are accurately represented. Another measure would be to make ethnic conflict and ethnic stereotyping taboo so that the average person would not resort to genocidal behavior once things go wrong. Lastly, making people feel secure is the most important step towards preventing ethnic conflict. If the people feel secure enough, they will not even need to think about ethnic violence. In short, while it is important to consider the differences of the various ethnic groups in a multiethnic society, it is vital that each group is kept represented and secure, free of any fears of subjugation.

While the case of Bosnia was extremely unfortunate, it provides an integral view into what could happen if perceived subjugation and fear of eradication reaches a breaking point. As was seen in Bosnia, ethnic violence can be extremely violent, resulting in untold suffering and death. That is why we must take necessary steps towards de-escalation and remediation of ethnic conflicts. These measures can, quite literally, save millions of lives.

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French Presidential Election 2022 and its significance for Europe

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Eugene Delacroix’s infamous painting “la liberté Guidant le Peuple” reminds the whole world of the July Revolution of 1830 that toppled King Charles X of France. The lady in the centre of the painting with the French tricolour still symbolizes the concept of liberty and reminds the whole world of revolutions and sacrifices made for freedom. France indeed has a long journey from revolting against “if they have no bread, let them eat cake” in 1789 to establishing a modern democratic society with the principles of “liberty, equality and fraternity”.  

France and the United States are rightly considered the birthplace of modern democracy. The French revolution taught the whole world lessons about revolution, freedom modern nationalism, liberalism and sovereignty. In 2022, France celebrates the 233rd year of Bastille Day which led to a new dawn in the French political system. From establishing 1ere Republique (1st Republic) in 1792, France has evolved and is currently under the 5eme Republique (5th Republic) under the constitution crafted by Charles de Gaulle in 1958.

Today, France is holding its presidential elections. As the French believe, ‘You first vote with your heart, then your head’, the first round of voting was concluded on Sunday 10th April and the Presidential debate on 20th April 2022. While the whole world waits for the 24th of April’s second round of elections and their results, this article attempts to understand the French electoral system and analyze Why French Presidential elections are important for Europe?

French electoral system

France is a semi-presidential democracy; the president is at the centre of power and Prime Minister heads the government. The president of the French republic is elected by direct universal suffrage where all French citizens aged 18 and above can vote, whether residing in France or not. In France, there is a two-round system in which voters vote twice on two Sundays, two weeks apart. This two-round system is widely practised in central and eastern Europe as well as Central Asia, South America and Africa.

In order to apply, a candidate needs 500 signatures of elected officials and they should be at least from 30 government departments. A candidate can be an independent or he or she can represent a political party. There is no limit to how many candidates can run for presidential elections. For instance, in 2002 there were 16 candidates, in 2017- 11 and in 2022 there are 12. While all the candidates have the right to equal media presence, the amount of spending on campaigns is also monitored; for the 1st round, the spending must not exceed 16.9 million euros and for the second round, it has been limited to 22.5 million euros.

This year, the 1st round of voting was concluded on 10th April while the second one is scheduled to be held on 24th April 2022. In the first round, all 12 candidates were eligible but for the second round, only two candidates who got the maximum votes are qualified for the second round.

A brief overview of French presidential candidates

Emmanuel Macron, five years ago at the age of 39, became the youngest French president of the French republic. In 2017, he broke the dominance of the two major French parties- Republicans and Socialists- by running a campaign “neither left nor right”. During the tenure of Emmanuel Macron, a hardcore centrist, France has witnessed a 7% GDP growth, unemployment dropped by 7.2% and the crime rate has fallen to 27%.

A far-rightist, Marine Le Pen is the other presidential candidate who succeeded her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, as leader of the National Front (later National Rally) party in 2011. She was also contesting against Emmanuel Macron during the 2017 elections and before that in 2012, against Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande. While she embraced the party’s anti-immigration stance, she rebranded the party’s Euroskepticism as French nationalism.

This year, in the April 2022 elections, the current President of France, Emanuel Macron and far-right leader, Marine Le Pen are the two candidates with Macron running ahead with a lead of 4.7 per cent votes (Emmanuel Macron-27.8% & Marine Le Pen- 23.1%).

Why French Presidential elections are important for Europe?

While European defence is primarily assured by the US-led NATO military alliance, of which most EU states are members, French president Macron said,  “Europe needs to finally build its own collective security framework on our continent…”, advocating for a ‘European Security’ framework amid tensions with Russia over Ukraine.

On the other hand, Le Pen’s party has been looked upon suspiciously that it might have received financing from a Russian bank connected to the Russian President Putin. In an interview with French public radion, Le pen said, “It will be necessary diplomatically, when the war [in Ukraine] is over, when a peace treaty has been signed, to try to avoid this tie-up which risks being the largest danger of the 21st century for us,” she even further added, “Imagine … if we let the first producer of raw materials in the world — which is Russia — [create an alliance] with the first factory of the world — which is China — to let them perhaps constitute the first military power of the world. I believe that it’s a potentially great danger.” These statements only further reinforce the claims that Le Pen is more pro-Russia.

While Macron is anti-Brexit, Le Pen, on the other hand, has been known for her ‘Frexit’ plan, meaning, that she wanted France to leave the EU and abandon the euro. However, during the 2022 elections, it appears that Le Pen has softened her stance on Frexit. Another important issue pertaining to immigration has been significant not only for France but the whole of Europe. This issue of immigration is directly linked with the “economic and cultural concerns” which raises an important worry about immigrants’ socio-political and economic integration into the French society and abiding by the principle of laïcité (secularism with French characters).

As for Macron, he wants to create a “rapid reaction force” to help protect EU states’ borders in case of a migrant surge and is also pushing for a rethink of the bloc’s asylum application process. Macron also said that he urges the EU to be more efficient in deporting those refused entries. On the other hand, Marine Le Pen during her campaign stated, “I will control immigration and establish security for all.” It is pertinent to note that Macron has introduced strict laws pertaining to immigration and controlling Islamic radicalization. For instance, he introduced the bill to ban foreign funding to mosques.

What is more interesting to mention is the concerns about ‘energy’ in the presidential election. Evidently, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has gained more attention on the economic and geopolitical consequences of existing national and European energy supply chain choices. In France especially, there is a major rift between the pro and anti-nuclear power fractions. Interestingly, France has the second most nuclear power stations in the world after the United States.  Besides, in the last week of the elections, Macron has been attempting to win the hearts of the French voters with his proposal for a “complete renewal” of his climate policy. He has also promised to build up to 14 nuclear reactors by 2050 and regenerate existing plants. Meanwhile, Le Pen has promised to build 20 nuclear plants and aim to have nuclear power provide 81 per cent of France’s energy by 2050. While the current president Macron and far-right candidate Le Pen have both committed to the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming, it is evident that their approaches differ particularly on energy. Since France is Europe’s second-biggest economy, France’s climate policy could echo right across the EU.

Besides, in light of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis, Macron has played a significant role as he is the bridgehead for Russia and the US. He has also negotiated talks between Washington DC and Moscow and has also condemned the crisis by making the statement, “Russia is not under attack, it is the aggressor. As some unsustainable propaganda would have us believe, this war is not as big as the battle against, that is a lie.” Indeed, he has played the role of Europe’s de-facto leader vis-à-vis the Ukraine crisis. Nonetheless, with a marginal win in the first round against Marine Le Pen, winning the 2nd term is not as easy as it was five years ago.

More importantly, it is pertinent to note that France has the 2nd strongest military and 2nd biggest economy in Europe, further the 5th biggest economy in the world. France is not only the most visited country in the world but also ranks 1st in the global soft power index. It is also the founding member of the United Nations Security Council, North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union which makes it an important player in European politics. Consequently, the policies of the French leadership not only direct the political, social and economic lives of the French but also reverberate in Europe.

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