Elections in France - the End of the EU as We Know It?

"The EU has been too often described as part of the problem, but it is part of the solution." The French journalist Natalie Nougayrède is Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy and an observer of international politics. In the interview she talks about the consequences of the Brexit, the influence of Fake News, and why the election in France is decisive for the EU.

Robert Bosch Stiftung | April 2017

Natalie Nougayrède, French journalist and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy. .

Ms Nougayrède, by triggering Article 50, the British government has formally enacted it’s referendum result. The EU made clear that it will be a tough partner negotiating the exit conditions, and a current survey shows that a majority of Europeans think that Britain should not be allowed to "cherry-pick" the benefits of EU membership. What is the atmosphere in Britain public like at the moment – still happy about or regretting the Brexit?

Natalie Nougayrède: Nearly one year after the Brexit referendum Britain is a country very divided and polarized, between Remain and Leave. Many among the 48 percent who voted to stay in the EU have since hoped that something could be done - or might still be done - to prevent a full withdrawal. This has come to be seen as an unlikely scenario, after Parliament gave the Prime Minister Theresa May a mandate to trigger article 50. Public opinion surveys also tend to show that there has been no post-Brexit turnaround: those who voted for Leave are still dedicated to that choice and they may even be more numerous than in June 2016. Pro-Brexit politicians are busy promising a glowing future of a "Global Britain" that would essentially turn to the US and what some call "the Anglosphere", including parts of the former British Empire, to defend its interests. This vision is much disputed but the debate has not triggered a wave of regret among those who voted to severe links with the EU. I would say that, overall, there is a good degree of a denial as to the difficulties that lie ahead. The effects of Brexit have not been fully felt yet.

There is a lot of discussion about fake news these days and about the media's role in reporting about politics. How did the British media perform during the campaign for the Brexit votum? And what is their role during the current election campaign in France?

The British media scene during the referendum campaign was dominated by pro-Brexit views - especially among the widely distributed tabloid newspapers. The BBC tried to be neutral. On the left, The Guardian was the strongest voice for Remain. Fake news played an important role but that's mostly because it was spread by key politicians who promised Brexit would help save hundreds of millions of pounds for the National Health Service: this was an outright lie. Likewise, pictures of refugees in Europe were used by the UKIP party to scare people into voting for Brexit. These manipulations were of course actively relayed on social media. But I think much of the Brexit vote has to be ascribed to the disgruntlement of lower to middle classes who have suffered from austerity policies and cuts in public spending - and also to a deep ignorance and confusion in Britain about what the EU is all about. Even without fake news it would have been difficult to convince people to vote for Remain, because it was always going to be hard to erase decades of disparaging media coverage of the EU in Britain.

Europe is closely watching the presidential elections in France. Will the upcoming election decide on the survival of the EU as we know it?

Yes, because there can be no European project without France being a full-blown and committed member of it. If Marine Le Pen or the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon are elected, the EU will suffer a terrible blow: indeed both are intensely hostile to it and fundamentally want France to pull out. If Fillon is elected, the EU has a chance of surviving but he will also introduce a more Putin friendly attitude which could damage European cohesion and common policies further. His vision of Europe is a nation-led one, not a project of deeper integration. Emmanuel Macron is the only candidate with both a serious chance of being elected and a strong pro-EU message. Importantly, he stresses the need to intensify cooperation with Germany.

The British decided to leave the EU, the French might as well head into this direction – to what extent is this due to the country’s history as former empires?

Although Brexit does carry elements of imperial nostalgia - the notion that Britain will always be turned towards the open seas rather than towards the continent - this explanation falls short in many ways. It minimizes the social and economic factors that have driven the Brexit vote. The "imperial" vision seems to be more of a post-referendum narrative than one that actually motivated voters in June 2016. Likewise in France, although the colonial legacy does weigh on the nation's politics - especially in relation to Arab and Muslim second and third generation immigrants -, this past cannot in itself explain why people are tempted to vote for populists. The main factor to keep in mind is the high unemployment rate which France has suffered from for decades: this is what fuels the popular anger that anti-EU politicians try to capitalize on. The paradox is that public opinion is not in favor of withdrawing from the EU, nor from the Eurozone.

Besides these examples, there are strong anti-EU motions in further European countries. Can they be traced back to essential defaults or even failures of the EU and if yes, how can we overcome these nationalistic motions?

To fight back against nationalism and populism is a complex task. There is no magic formula. The example of the Netherlands, where centrist parties such as D66 did well in the elections, shows that a confident message of reason and moderation can be successful. The EU must cast itself as a protection for both nations and citizens in an unpredictable and challenging world. Without the EU, all of us are weaker and more exposed to external pressures and threats. But for this message to be more convincing it is important that the EU and the governments of its member States set up policies that deliver on economic growth, security, and migration. The EU has all too often been described as a part of the problem whereas in fact it is a key part of the solution.

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