Author: MAÏA DE LA BAUME
Emmanuel Macron still has an election to win but rival blocs in the European Parliament are already competing for the affections of the French presidential candidate’s centrist movement.
Macron, a former economy minister in the Socialist government but not a party member, set up En Marche a year ago but never wedded it to any family in the European Parliament. The liberal and center-left blocs would love to get a sizeable injection of French MEPs in their ranks at the next EU elections in 2019, representing a French president who they hope will breathe new life into the European project.
The enthusiasm generated by Macron’s narrow first-round victory over the Euroskeptic MEP Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, and the expectation that he will win the second round on May 7, has triggered jostling for position by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) — home of the sole existing En Marche MEP, Sylvie Goulard — and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).
“Macron’s victory is very good news for us, both in tactical and political terms,” said one ALDE insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It gives credit to what we have been saying for years, with a possibility to get our ideas implemented.”
Although a majority of ALDE MEPs have supported Macron’s pro-European movement since its creation, Macron never specifically returned the compliment by hitching his party to their wagon.
“Emmanuel has not completely decided yet if he wants to join ALDE,” said Goulard, a French MEP who has helped promote the Macron brand in Brussels. “There are obvious affinities with ALDE but it’s too soon to say.”
When Macron was asked which political group’s traditional pre-EU summit gathering he would attend if elected president, “he responded that the French couldn’t care less about these meetings,” Goulard said.
That attitude didn’t discourage ALDE’s parliamentary leader, the irrepressible former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, from gathering reporters at his office in Brussels shortly after Macron’s first-round victory to talk about what it meant for the future of Europe and ALDE. Asked whether he would like Macron to join his ALDE group, Verhofstatd said: “I hope so, yes.”
Hans van Baalen, the president of the ALDE pan-European party, tweeted Sunday after the French election results came in: “Let’s work together w/ winner of 1st round.”
Macron was by far the most Europhile of the main candidates in the first round of the French vote and his ideological affinity with ALDE is clear. His pledge to revive Franco-German cooperation and to set up a eurozone parliament and finance ministry are long-standing ALDE aspirations. “If he does what he said he’d do, he would put in place most of Verhofstadt’s ideas,” said the ALDE official.
En Marche could choose not to be affiliated with any European party, the way Macron shunned France’s mainstream political parties to cast himself as an anti-establishment candidate — albeit one with plenty of mainstream appeal, as a former investment banker.
Verhofstadt tried to head off that argument by trying to convince reporters in Brussels that ALDE is anti-establishment and “radical,” full of bold centrists that go “beyond the left and the right.”
If Macron did buy that argument and plump for ALDE, it would allow En Marche to tap into EU party funds. For ALDE, it would mean a huge boost in their influence in the Parliament, where the French are already the second-largest delegation. ALDE’s seven existing French MEPs are the group’s second-largest national delegation after the Spaniards, and the ALDE party has 60 member parties across Europe, including Ciudadanos in Spain and D66 in the Netherlands.
The European liberals currently have wind in their sails, after some recent election boosts in Northern Europe that partly offset the setbacks suffered by Germany’s Free Democrats (FDP). In the Netherlands, Mark Rutte’s VVD recently fended off a Euroskeptic challenge by Geert Wilders, and seven of the 27 EU leaders in the Council are ALDE members, including Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel, Belgium’s Charles Michel and Lars Løkke Rasmussen in Denmark. Some in the group would like an ALDE member to become the future president of the Council, according to party insiders.
But the liberals have rivals for En Marche’s affections — including the S&D, the second-largest party in the Parliament after the center-right European Popular Party (EPP). Although the S&D endorsed the official French Socialist first-round candidate, Benoît Hamon, one S&D official estimated that about half of the group — including French MEPs such as Pervenche Berès or Sylvie Guillaume — could be described as “Macron-compatible.”
“Nobody said it out loud but almost half of the group felt much closer to Macron than Hamon,” said the official. “We can perfectly imagine people from the S&D joining En Marche while staying in the Socialist group.” In the Parliament, members can choose to belong to a political group that differs from their national party’s group membership.
Macron could also disappoint them both and follow his French liberal allies in François Bayrou’s MoDem party into the much smaller European Democratic Party (EDP), which is allied to ALDE.
“Where will Macron choose to go?” asked the ALDE official. “It will be Verhofstadt’s job to influence him.”