Why Macron will struggle to export his revolution

The French president is looking for Irish parties to join his new European bloc

Emmanuel Macron at the launch of the European Head of States and Governments in Brussels on Friday: parties jumping aboard his new centrist vehicle will have to be unhappy with its current arrangement. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Emmanuel Macron at the launch of the European Head of States and Governments in Brussels on Friday: parties jumping aboard his new centrist vehicle will have to be unhappy with its current arrangement. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

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Through a mix of cunning, opportunism and exceptional timing, Emmanuel Macron upended French politics. Could he do the same for the European Union? The answer is almost certainly no, but the man who rose from nowhere to smash the calcified duopoly of the postwar party system in his own country has earned the right to a little indulgence when he surveys the map of Europe and sees an export market ripe for his vaulting brand of Jupiterian centrism.

Macron’s En Marche movement plans to run candidates in the European Parliament next year, and doing so will require it to join one of the political blocs through which politicians wield influence there. The two biggest groupings – the Christian Democratic European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) – are as good as off limits on account of their close relationships with Macron’s vanquished domestic adversaries, Les Républicains and the Parti Socialiste. That leaves the liberal ALDE group as the most comfortable fit, but in recent weeks Macron has confirmed that he is mulling over a second possibility: creating an altogether new bloc. “Europe needs a political recomposition if we are to make progress,” he told journalists earlier this month.

In an effort to gauge interest in his political start-up idea, Macron has set up a taskforce led by 31-year-old Pieyre-Alexandre Anglade, a Brussels-based adviser. Anglade has already been to Slovakia, Poland, Estonia, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany. In early February he went to Spain to meet senior figures in Ciudadanos, a newish liberal party that has been soaring in the polls. Next on his list is Ireland, where he is expected to meet representatives of a number of parties to see if they could be peeled away from their current alliances.

The Irish parties

Tempting as it might sound for Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin, Mary Lou McDonald or Brendan Howlin to align themselves with France’s box-office president, the chances of any of the Irish parties abandoning their current groups are remote. Fine Gael has done well out of its membership of the EPP, the biggest bloc in the European Parliament, which plugs it into a network of other centre-right parties, including Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Individual Fine Gael politicians feel it gives them status; in the case of Mairéad McGuinness, a vice-president of the parliament, and Dara Murphy, who sits on the EPP executive, that’s true. Moreover, the EPP is expecting to have a good election next year, not least because its closest rival, the S&D, will take a heavy hit from the loss of its 20 UK Labour MEPs when London commits Brexicide.

Some in Fianna Fáil have always been uneasy with its membership of ALDE, the liberal bloc it joined in 2009, but Martin himself is not among them. Similarly, any attempt to coax Labour or Sinn Féin out of their left-wing groups – the S&D and the United Left/Nordic Green Left, respectively – would be a long shot.

New centrist vehicle

This reflects the problem Macron will face across the continent. Any party that jumps aboard his new centrist vehicle will have to be unhappy with its current arrangement. More importantly, it will have to see a strategic advantage and be ideologically in tune with Macron’s thinking, particularly on Europe. Fine Gael likes to think of itself as pro-European, and Varadkar seems eager to invite comparisons between himself and that other young technocrat in the Élysée, but En Marche’s integrationist agenda, which includes common tax rates and the immediate creation of a joint military intervention force, would make Varadkar sound like John Major alongside Macron.

To form a parliamentary group, En Marche will need a minimum of 25 MEPs from seven different member states. Without heavy defections from either of the main left- or right-wing blocs, Macron’s best hope might be to attract smaller numbers of individual MEPs from across the board. A key target would be the European Democrat Party (EDP), a centrist pro-European group that includes François Bayrou’s Modem – a key Macron ally. The Irish MEP Marian Harkin is also a member.

Viable new bloc

Macron’s credibility would soar if he managed to put together a coalition that did well enough in next year’s elections to form a viable new bloc. But, given the obstacles he faces, the most obvious solution would be for En Marche simply to join ALDE, the liberal group with which the EDP (and Fianna Fáil) is aligned in the parliament. Given the problems facing the S&D, ALDE could even become the second-largest parliamentary bloc after the next election, giving it – and, by extension, Macron – additional clout.

It may not sound like a compromise befitting the Jupiterian president, but even the god of gods must find ways to rule over his realm and make his will known. In the labyrinthine world of EU politics, that means finding friends and cutting a deal.

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