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Stephen Collins: Macron’s victory may force our hand on neutrality

Nebulous concept of neutrality could be challenged by any expansion of EU defence

Emmanuel Macron addresses voters in front of the Eiffel Tower after beating Marine Le Pen for a second five-year term as president of France. Photograph: Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

The coverage of the French presidential election outcome by much of the British media demonstrated that fake news is not the preserve of the Russian propaganda machine. By any standard Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the presidential election, with 58.5 per cent of the vote compared with 41.5 per cent for his rival Marine Le Pen, was a decisive endorsement for him as well as representing a hugely important commitment by the French people to the future of the European Union.

Macron was the first serving French president for 20 years to win re-election for a second five-year term. His predecessors François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy both went down to defeat after one term, suffering a backlash from a notoriously cynical electorate.

Macron did see his vote slip from the 66 per cent he won at his first attempt five years ago but considering the inevitable wear and tear that holding office inflicts on political reputations his emphatic victory last Sunday represented a massive political achievement.

Yet the right-wing British press and even much of the BBC coverage of the result focused on the share of the vote won by Le Pen as a warning about a rising tide of right-wing nationalism and was even portrayed as a threat to the future of the European Union.



There was a great deal of commentary on the allegedly low turnout and the fact that some voters had abstained rather than cast their vote for one or other of the candidates. In fact, the turnout, at 72.5 per cent, was higher than that in the last British general election of 2019, where just 67.3 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballots. In that election Boris Johnson’s role in winning 45 per cent the vote for the Conservative Party was presented as an overwhelming victory.

Of course, the very different electoral systems make direct comparisons of outcomes invidious but the fact remains that the French turnout was higher and Macron defeated his rival in the second round by a far bigger margin than Boris Johnson achieved against Jeremy Corbyn and Labour. The scale of Macron’s victory and the renewed commitment to the future of the EU that it represented was evidenced by the number of EU flags being waved at the victory celebrations alongside the French tricolour.

It was ironic to hear British politicians and commentators express concern at the rise of the nationalist right in France when the UK is currently governed by a right-wing faction of the Conservative Party that is actually more extreme than Le Pen on many issues. She wants to “reform” the EU, they want to destroy it; she wants to limit the number of immigrants coming into her country and they want to do the same in theirs.

The other important piece of good news for the EU last weekend was the election defeat of the populist Slovenian leader Janez Jansa. He was ousted by a recently-formed green-liberal party which campaigned in favour of supporting EU policies on the rule of law and implementing environmental policies to deal with climate change.

Macron’s victory has provided Ireland with a crucially important ally in the ongoing row over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. Given the belligerent sounds coming from Downing Street about abandoning the agreement with the EU, French support in any future row will be important.

There is also likely to be a challenge for Ireland, though, arising from Macron’s commitment to expanding the security and defence capacity of the EU. The war in Ukraine has made this an even more urgent priority and if Macron does follow through it will force us to decide once and for all what we mean by the nebulous nature of our neutrality.

Solidarity clause

While we have not really been neutral since we joined the EU the official line has been to continue with the pretence that we are. The “solidarity clause” of the Treaty on European Union states that “if a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power”.

As former senior diplomat Rory Montgomery pointed out in a letter to The Irish Times last month, Ireland is bound by this clause although it is qualified by the guarantees given in advance of the second Lisbon referendum and incorporated in the Constitution, that exempt us being required to offer military assistance as distinct from other types of aid.

The response of the Government to the Russian invasion has reflected our EU commitment. Taoiseach Micheál Martin has not only supported sanctions against Russia and offered sanctuary to Ukrainian refugees, he has urged tougher sanctions than those that have been adopted. What the Government was unable to do because of the constitutional provision was to offer military equipment to help Ukrainian defence.

If Macron succeeds in persuading the EU to adopt a tighter defence policy we will have to decide where our real security and defence interests lie. A serious debate is urgently required but how that debate is framed will have a decisive bearing on the outcome.