Author: DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
Posted: 25 April, 2017
As EU leaders rushed to praise Emmanuel Macron, they were confronted with questions about how appropriate it is for Brussels to intervene in a national election amid fears of a backlash from French voters.
Perhaps nowhere was the question as irresistible — or inevitable — as in Moscow, where the pro-Kremlin television network Russia Today pressed the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, to explain a tweet she sent Sunday night that appeared to hail Macron as “the hope and future of our generation.”
“Around the same number of French voters rather apparently see Marine Le Pen as their hope and their future,” an RT reporter told Mogherini at a news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
“My question is if Russia calls one of the candidates a hope of the generation, will it be accused of interfering in French elections?”
Mogherini turned to Lavrov, dryly asking: “Sergei, you don’t want to take that one?”
She then launched into an at times rambling reply, insisting it was the sight of EU and French flags carried by Macron supporters that she had referred to in her tweet and described as the “hope and future,” rather than Macron himself, who will face Le Pen in the May 7 runoff.
“Seeing together the European and the French flags is affirming that a people’s identity and person’s identity can at the same time be French and European, and this is how large parts of my generation, which is also Emmanuel’s generation, feels about it,” Mogherini said.
She added, “So I am afraid I didn’t define Emmanuel as … the hope of a generation but the fact of seeing European and French flags together.”
Mogherini was far from the only EU official to struggle Monday to justify the glee over Macron’s first-place finish, and the exuberant support for him among EU leaders, in light of a longstanding practice in Brussels of not intervening in domestic political campaigns.
After European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called Macron to congratulate him on his victory, reporters bombarded the Commission’s chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas with questions about the propriety of such a move, and if Juncker would express a similar preference in the U.K. election on June 8.
Le Pen’s antipathy toward Brussels makes supporting Macron a no-brainer for most pro-EU officials, and Schinas sought to portray Juncker’s position in this context.
“The choice was between defending what Europe represents and another option, which aims to destroy Europe,” Schinas said. “So it is a simple choice and our president, therefore thought it would be worthwhile congratulating the candidate who defended the pro-European option.”
Schinas insisted the election in Britain was different. “In the U.K. general election, the stake is how the Brits want to be governed in the next five years,” he said, “and this is not for us, this is not for Brussels, this is not for the Commission, this is not for anyone but the sovereign British people.”
Schinas waved off assertions that Juncker’s congratulations were premature. “The election is not over,” he said, “but the fundamental choice is still the same.”
Pro-EU views are not in fashion these days, particularly in Western Europe which has faced a wave of anti-establishment populism in recent years. And so it is unclear if Macron, an independent candidate who has presented himself as an alternative to mainstream parties, will embrace the support from EU officials while campaigning in the second round, or if he will try to distance himself from Brussels.
Mogherini, who was visiting Moscow for the first time since she became EU high representative for foreign affairs in 2014, tried to insist there was no distinguishing between the EU and European countries, and so her commentary could hardly be viewed as meddling.
“The European Union without its member states does not exist and this is why commenting on the European Union and the French flags together is not interference,” she said.
“This distance that sometimes is perceived inside or outside the European Union between capitals and Brussels is a fake one,” Mogherini said, citing her experience as a government minister in Rome. “I know very well the decisions the European Union takes are not taken by an alien living in Brussels.”