On April 17, French President Manuel Macron expressed concerns about rising nationalist movements across Europe during his first speech to the European Parliament. Although Mr. Macron avoided naming today’s far-right European leaders, including the current Prime Minister of Hungary and the Italian populists that recently won the national elections, he made it clear that the traditional values of Western liberal democracy are in danger. Also, he encouraged Europeans to gather their strength and become the authority of democracy that would allow Europe to keep its identity.
Moreover, current somewhat undemocratic behavior of both the United States and Russia has encouraged a number of European states to begin questioning the basic principles of democracy. Many European leaders are concerned about the future of the EU without Great Britain in it, but Macron looks at Brexit as an opportunity for Europe to secure its leadership position in the world. Despite Macron’s positive vision of Europe’s future, the upsurge of xenophobic nationalism is the real threat to EU liberal democracy.
Macron, at the Barricades, Warns of Rising Nationalism in Europe
Not long ago, the things Emmanuel Macron said this week would not have needed saying. Yet, addressing the European Parliament, the French president — barely 40 and not yet a year in office — sounded almost like a biblical prophet, warning of the rising fascination with antidemocratic and “illiberal” ideas, “the deadly tendency which might lead our continent to the abyss, nationalism, giving up of freedom.”
Mr. Macron did not mention anyone by name — not Viktor Orban of Hungary, not Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland, not the populists who won in Italy’s national election, not the far-right parties that have spread across Europe on hatred of immigrants, xenophobia, disdain for the rule of law, intolerance of dissent and suspiciousness of international cooperation. Nor did he name Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin, though they are clearly an inspiration and model for the European far right.
He did not have to. The struggle between the traditional values of Western liberal democracy and the new forces of authoritarianism, intolerance and nationalism has become a defining challenge of the times. Invoking the title of a well-known German trilogy by Hermann Broch about the deterioration of values in the years before World War I, Mr. Macron said: “I don’t want to belong to a generation of sleepwalkers that has forgotten its own past. I want to belong to a generation that has decided forcefully to defend its democracy.”
Mr. Macron’s crushing defeat of France’s reactionary National Front last May raised hopes that the tide of illiberalism was turning in Europe. But Prime Minister Orban’s easy win in Hungary’s national election on April 8 and the success of antiestablishment parties in Italy a month earlier have signaled otherwise. To the east, Russia’s brazen violation of international norms has only increased despite broad economic sanctions — witness the chemical assault on a double agent in Britain, while to the west, the Trump administration relentlessly pursues its chaotic assault on American values and traditions.
Mr. Macron said political change was inevitable, but it should not mean abandonment of democratic principles.
“Indeed, in these difficult times, European democracy is our best chance,” he said. “The worst possible mistake would be to give up on our model and our identity.”
He added, “We see authoritarians all around us, and the answer is not authoritarian democracy, but the authority of democracy.”
Mr. Macron is not without political weaknesses. He has been called “Jupiter” for his haughty style, and his economic reforms at home are being challenged by a wave of strikes. His proposals for a closer financial convergence in the eurozone have been met with a cool response in Germany. Yet the French president is one of the rare European leaders who unabashedly believe in Europe’s future, especially as Britain prepares to exit the European Union and America’s leadership erodes. Though he has cultivated a strategic rapport with President Trump, providing French forces for the punitive strike on Syria last weekend, for example, Mr. Macron drew a distinction in his speech between Europe and an America that was “rejecting multilateralism, free trade and climate change.”
It may be that the West is going through a temporary backlash against globalization, terrorism, migration, social upheavals and technological change that have swept so rapidly around the world, and that Mr. Macron is exaggerating when he sees a “certain European civil war” in the political turmoil. Yet, in Hungary, Mr. Orban opened his fourth term as prime minister with a national hate campaign against George Soros, the Hungarian-American funder of liberal projects, and with plans for a legislative campaign against nongovernmental groups that help immigrants and refugees. Late last year the European Union formally put Poland on notice that its assault on the judiciary was a serious breach of union rules. And the vulgar soap opera in Washington shows no signs of ending.
Mr. Macron said his goal was to open a critical public debate on what Europe is about. That debate should not be limited to Europe. This month, Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, warned that fascism posed a more serious threat now than at any time since the end of World War II, and the danger was “enhanced by the volatile presidency of Donald Trump.” When a 40-year-old French president and an 80-year-old former American secretary of state sound the alarm, one hopes that the sleepwalkers will awaken.
Source: The New York Times, The Editorial Board, April 18, 2018. Photo credit to Mike McQuade .