Tomorrow week could herald the beginning of the end of the EU as we know it. If Marine Le Pen wins the French presidency in the final round run-off against Emmanuel Macron, it will signal an earthquake for the EU that would make Brexit look like a trifling inconvenience.
France is geographically, politically, economically and culturally essential to the EU in ways that Britain never was. The election of Le Pen would be an earthquake in the heart of the EU that would topple one of its pillars and so the roof would come crashing in. It would inflict fatal structural damage that would ultimately lead to the bloc’s failure and dissolution – not overnight perhaps, but inevitably. Take France out of the EU – even take French commitment and political investment out of the EU – and it’s no longer the EU.
Deep and ever-growing commitment to the EU has been one of the central policies of Irish governments for more than 50 years. At times the public commitment has been critical – there is a habit of sending treaties back, for instance – but it has always been engaged. Being part of the EU is now deeply embedded into our political consensus. Look at how Sinn Féin has had to abandon its anti-EU positions to properly compete for power. Polls show overwhelming support for EU membership.
The destruction – quickly or gradually – of the EU would leave Ireland confused and adrift, both politically and economically. Above all, it would leave Ireland as a small nation and economy, dependant on larger countries for investment and markets, in a world where the principal rules-based organisation had fallen apart – a world where big countries are unconstrained by the need for co-operation with and obligation to smaller countries.
One senior figure in the Government told me 18 months ago the prospect of Le Pen winning was the biggest threat facing Europe – and Ireland
If EU membership has been a key enabler of Irish prosperity during the few decades of economic and political catching up with the rich West that we have seen since the 1980s, then a fractured, emasculated or non-functioning EU threatens Ireland’s direct economic and political interests. One senior figure in the Irish Government told me 18 months ago that the prospect of Le Pen winning was the biggest threat facing Europe – and Ireland.
You don’t have to look very hard at her programme to see how incompatible it is with EU membership. While Le Pen now says that she does not want to leave the EU – as she promised in the last campaign – several of her key campaign pledges are directly in conflict with EU law. She wants to legalise discrimination against non-French residents, including EU citizens of other countries. She wants to cut French payments to the EU budget and give preference to French companies in public contracts. Fortress France.
These and many other elements of her programme would, says the astute EU observer Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia consultancy, “break EU laws and threaten to destroy the single market”. As for Le Pen’s insistence that she does not want to leave the EU but “reform it”, Rahman says: “She is, in effect, saying that she wants to remain aboard the EU bus – but drive it off a cliff.”
There are many other reasons to fear a Le Pen victory. It would shatter the already brittle western unity on Ukraine, putting an ally and admirer of Vladimir Putin at the head of a nuclear power and key member of Nato.
Then there’s the anti-foreigner stuff. Sure, Le Pen doesn’t talk as much about chucking out immigrants as she did before – but she doesn’t have to, does she? To adapt the old adage, I’m sure not all Le Pen voters are racists; but I’ll bet all the racists are voting for her. It would a victory for narrow nationalism and xenophobia, for fear, rage and prejudice. It would be a catastrophe for France, a crisis for Europe and a disaster for Ireland.
Links to Putin
The good news is that a Le Pen victory is unlikely; the polls since last Sunday’s first round of voting which narrowed the field to two have suggested that Macron’s lead is firming up. Ipsos put it at 10 points on Thursday. The president did little campaigning in advance of round one, but has now thrown himself into it; he will, French reports say, ruthlessly focus on Le Pen’s links to Putin and her anti-EU policies. French voters, like many around the continent, might be grumpy with the EU. That’s not the same thing as wanting to see it destroyed.
Le Pen doesn't talk as much about chucking out immigrants as she did before – but she doesn't have to, does she?
The bad news is that a Le Pen victory is more possible than ever before. Nobody expects Macron to romp home as he did against her five years ago. For one thing, incumbent French presidents tend to be unpopular, and Macron is no exception. No president has won re-election since Jacques Chirac in 2002.
This week, speaking to voters in the economically depressed northern region where he grew up, Politico found that hostility towards Macron was “widespread”.
Last time, left-wing voters came out in the second round to defeat Le Pen by voting for Macron – but then he was a new candidate, promising a liberal vision for the future. Now many of those voters decry him as elitist and out-of-touch – a “president for the wealthy”. Many of them may simply stay at home. That opens the door to Le Pen.
Key to the outcome is the 22 per cent who voted for the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon last Sunday. “Not one vote for Madame Le Pen!” Melenchon intoned four times in rapid succession, Lara Marlowe reported on Monday. But he refuses to endorse Macron. Up to him to win the votes: Melenchon won’t present them on a silver platter.
This is high-wire, unpredictable stuff, too reminiscent of Brexit and Trump for my liking. And the stakes could hardly be higher.