12 June 2017

The Impact of the British and French Elections

Over the past few days, two pivotal elections that will decide the future of Europe took place in the United Kingdom and France.  In one election, a government that had been expected to strengthen its grip on power instead found itself severely weakened by an election result that seemed impossible just a few weeks ago.  In the other, a political movement that sprung seemingly out of nowhere has found itself with more power than it could have imagined just a few months ago.  Of course, the former is Britain, which is in the process of withdrawing from the European Union and likely, from a major role in the affairs of continental Europe.  The latter is obviously France, which under the leadership of a new centrist government is seeking to re-establish the leading role in the affairs of continental Europe that it once held.  While these two countries are seemingly drifting apart, history shows us that the futures of the UK and France are likely to remain closely linked, even as the two countries head in seemingly opposite directions.

Britain's Weakened Government 

In the United Kingdom’s early parliamentary elections, it appeared just a few weeks ago that Prime Minister Theresa May and her Conservative government would romp to an overwhelming victory that would greatly solidify its grip on power in the UK.  However, the British prime minister ran a disastrous campaign that resulted in the opposition Labour Party managing to reduce a larger than 20% gap in the polls one month ago to just 2.4% in the actual election.  As a result, the Conservatives lost their majority in the House of Commons, resulting in that party being forced to go to the main Ulster Unionist party from Northern Ireland (the Democratic Unionist Party) in order to seek their support to form a new government. 

As it stands, any new Conservative government will be weak and at the whims of members of that party, or the DUP, that don’t agree with certain government policies.  As the Labour Party and its controversial leader Jeremy Corbyn lack any means of forming a new government, the likelihood of the next government struggling to hold on to power is high, and the prospects for new elections in the near-future are significant.  This is certainly not the result that Prime Minister May had hoped for as the United Kingdom prepares to enter into negotiations on its withdrawal from the European Union.

Macron Accumulates More Power 

While the United Kingdom was left with a weaker government in the wake of its recent elections, France’s new President Emmanuel Macron and his new centrist party, La Republique En Marche (REM), are set to dominate political power in that country as a result of their victory in last weekend’s first round of voting in France’s parliamentary elections.  While the new party won just 28.2% of the popular vote, it is on pace to secure a dominant majority in the parliament, while the political opposition has fallen into disarray as a result of the rise of President Macron and his centrist movement.  In fact, President Macron has amassed so much power in so little time that it has been suggested that he is France’s most powerful political leader since Charles De Gaulle, an impressive task given the fact that he was little known in France just a few years ago. 

Of course, the new French president may have accumulated a great deal of power, but he will face a massive challenge in reviving the moribund French economy, something that he must do in order to retain the high levels of support that he currently enjoys.  Moreover, he has vowed to restore French leadership in Europe, but will find that France’s power relative to Germany’s has waned in recent years, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel has emerged as the unquestioned political leader in continental Europe.  If he can overcome these substantial challenges, he could emerge as Europe’s most influential leader whenever Chancellor Merkel leaves office in Germany. 

Europe's Pivotal Relationship? 

While the British and the French may be seen as drifting apart, the fact is that the fortunes of these two countries are often tied closely together.  For centuries, the British and the French were at each other’s throats, fighting a series of conflicts that culminated in the British playing the lead role in the defeat of Napoleon’s bid to establish French domination over continental Europe.  In the 20th century, Britain and France came together to put aside centuries of conflict to work together to prevent Germany from being successful in its bid for European domination.  Now, the United Kingdom appears to be withdrawing from the affairs of continental Europe at a time when the UK’s close ally, the United States, appears to be doing the same.  As a result, continental Europe will once again be led by Germany and France, while the UK focuses its attention elsewhere. 

However, Britain has played a decisive role in maintaining the balance of power in Europe, and should old rivalries on the continent resurface, France will want Britain to play that role again in the future.  As such, the importance of the upcoming negotiations over the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union cannot be overstated.  Should these negotiations fail to reach a deal on an amicable split, Britain will likely completely withdraw from European affairs, to the detriment of European security and stability.  Therefore, it is in the interest of Britain’s weakened government and French’s strengthened government to find a solution to the British withdrawal from the EU that suits both sides.