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En Marche: Macron’s France and the European Union

On the evening of 7 May, Emmanuel Macron walked, almost marched, slowly across the courtyard of the Louvre to make his first speech as the President elect of the French Fifth Republic. He did so not, as others would have done, to the music of the “Marseillaise” but to the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – the “Ode to Joy”, the anthem of the European Union. It was, wrote Natalie Nougayrède in the Guardian, “the most meaningful, inspiring symbol Macron could choose”.

The gesture, and the speeches which have followed, have been ringing endorsements of the Union and all that it stands for: tolerance, trans-national justice, open borders, free trade, increased opportunities, personal economic, cultural and political for all. In a word: internationalism. Since his election Macron has been speaking not only to and for a large sector of the French people; he has been speaking for and to both Europe and – as he made clear – the world. “Europe and the world”, he declared, “are waiting for us to defend the spirit of the Enlightenment”.  His victory is the latest in series of defeats for the populist parties of the far right in Europe.

This is a reason to rejoice, but it is no cause for complacency. Brexit has not, as many hoped it might, been overturned, and Donald Trump has yet to be impeached. Marine Le Pen lost massively; but she still made substantial gains. Geert Wilders, the populist, with the dyed blond quiff, won fewer votes than expected in the Netherlands in March; but he is still better placed that he was before the elections. So too are a handful of other smaller parties with similar views. The “Alternative for Germany” has not been doing well in past few months, but neither has it disappeared. With Viktor Orbán firmly entrenched in Hungary, and elections due in Italy before next spring in which, according to recent polls, the “Five-Star Movement” could win over 32% of the vote placing it ahead of any of the major parties – Europe is still in urgent need of defense.

The EU is the outcome of a long, slow process which took its modern form in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – the term “international” was coined by Jeremy Bentham in 1789 – of the possibility of an international rule of law, and of the trans-national agencies and courts to uphold it.

London Brexit, Pro-EU. CC0 Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The problem with international law, however, is that, by its very nature, it demands at a least a re-evaluation, if not an outright rejection, of what has been ever since the seventeenth century one of the foundations of the modern state: sovereignty. The power of the sovereign – be it a monarch or a popular assembly – wrote Thomas Hobbes is “to prescribe the Rules of discerning Good and Evil and therefore in him is the Legislative Power”.  It was crucial, that that power should be what he called “incommunicable and inseparable”, by which he meant that it could not be divided nor shared with any other sovereign.  This is the legal basis on which the modern nation state, constructed along what has come to be known as the “Westphalian model”, has been based. But while indivisibility operates well enough within individual states, it cannot, as another Englishman, the great jurist Henry Sumner Maine, wrote in 1888, “belong to International Law”. International law is based upon treaties, and the power to enforce those treaties can only ever be divided up among the nations which agree to abide by them. (The example Maine gave, paradoxically in the light of Brexit, was the British relationship with the Indian princely states.) Without divided sovereignty no international law can exist. It is one of the basic marks of western civilization.

European Union Law is an inter-national law, and it governs what all the member states share in common and, like all international law it assumes priority over any conflicting laws enacted by individual member states. The penal code, family and labor laws, the laws governing succession, inheritance and marriage, property and taxation – indeed all those laws which govern the daily life of the citizens of Europe – are all matters for domestic not EU law, so long as they conform to EU and international norms. Of course, dividing sovereignty inevitably means relinquishing some part of it, most contentiously, in the case of the EU, the right to close your borders against those with whom you are dividing it. But as the Greeks discovered at Salamis in 480 BCE, and Europeans have discovered time and time again over the centuries ever since, cooperation generally brings far more benefits that it does losses.

To be willing to divide sovereignty in this way, however, demands that you trust in and are prepared to work with those with whom you divide it, and this means sharing their same basic political, social, ethical and legal values. The European project, which Macron described as “our civilization” and “our common enterprises and our hopes” is nothing if not a grand exercise in sharing: sovereignty, administrative responsibilities, educational and cultural goals, citizenship and of course each other’s populations.  And that, in turn, means trusting in what it can achieve. So far, for all its difficulties it has not let us down. The continent has been at peace now for over seventy years – the longest period in its entire history. For all the populist talk of “forgotten ones”, for all the justifiable fear of terrorism, its peoples live better, safer, more just and more equitable lives than they have ever done. Of course the EU is in need of reform. The power of the parliament, needs to be extended, and so, too, does the reach of the ECJ. European citizenship needs to be more clearly defined and strengthened. The Euro-zone requires a proper common budget – something already on Macron’s agenda. Military dependence on an unpredictable United States should be reduced and the long dormant plan for a European Defense Force revived. Above all perhaps the nature of the European project, its demands and its benefits, need to be better explained. A massive ignorance as to what Europe is has already robbed future generations of one European nation of a brighter future. Everything should now be done to prevent any of the others from going the same way.

The forces of populism and obscurantism may have been defeated; but they have not been annihilated. At the moment it would seem to be up to France to lead the way. En marche!

Featured image credit: “Emmanuel Macron at Sommet éco franco-chinois” by Pablo Tupin-Noriega. CC0 Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.  

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