BRUSSELS — There have been sighs of relief across the European Union after President Emmanuel Macron rebuffed a serious challenge in France from far-right populist champion Marine Le Pen.
Then another populist fell, in Slovenia, where the country’s three-time prime minister, Janez Jansa, lost to a loose coalition of centrist rivals in Sunday’s parliamentary elections.
These two defeats were immediately perceived as a reprieve for the European Union and its fundamental principles, including judicial independence, shared sovereignty and the supremacy of European law. This is because they have dealt a blow to the ambitions and worldview of Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, who has eagerly supported Ms Le Pen and Mr Jansa in an effort to create a coalition of more nationalist policies. , religious and identity issues that could undermine the authority of the European Union itself.
“Europe can breathe,” said Jean-Dominique Giuliani, president of the Robert Schuman Foundation, a pro-European research centre.
After his own election victory earlier this month, Mr Orban said: “The whole world saw tonight in Budapest that Christian Democratic politics, conservative civic politics and patriotic politics won. We say to Europe that this is not the past: it is the future. This will be our common European future.
Not yet, it seems.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Orban, who has been close to both former President Donald J. Trump and Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian President, is more isolated in Europe than since. many years. He has been a role model for Poland’s Law and Justice party government, which has also challenged what it sees as liberal politics and the authoritarian bureaucratic and judicial influence of Brussels. But Law and Justice is deeply anti-Putin, a temper sharpened by war.
“The international environment for Orban has never been so dire,” said Peter Kreko, director of Political Capital, a Budapest-based research institution.
Mr Orban has found support from Mr Trump, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and Italian populist leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini. But they are all gone, as Mr. Jansa is expected to be, and now Mr. Orban “has fewer friends in the world,” Mr. Kreko said.
Ms Le Pen’s party received a loan of 10.7 million euros in March to help finance its campaign with the Hungarian bank MKB, whose main shareholders are considered close to Mr Orban. And the Hungarian media and social media openly supported Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Jansa.
Ms Le Pen’s strong performance was a reminder that populism – on the right and on the left – remains a dynamic force in a Europe, with strong voter discontent over rising inflation, soaring oil prices energy, slow growth, immigration and bureaucracy emanating from the EU. headquarters in Brussels.
But now Mr Macron, as the first French president to be re-elected in 20 years, has new authority to push forward his ideas for more European responsibility and collective defence.
After the retirement at the end of last year of Angela Merkel, the former German Chancellor, Mr Macron will inevitably be seen as the de facto leader of the European Union, with a stronger voice and standing up for advance the issues that matter to him. These include a stronger European pillar in the areas of defense and security, economic reform and the fight against climate change.
“He will want to go further and faster,” said Georgina Wright, an analyst at the Institut Montaigne in Paris.
But Ms Wright and other analysts say he must also learn from his first term and try to consult more widely. His penchant for announcing proposals rather than building coalitions has sometimes annoyed his European counterparts, leaving him portrayed as the vanguard of one, leading without supporters.
“Europe is at the center of his policy and will be in his second term as well,” said Jeremy Shapiro, research director for the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “In the first term, he failed in terms of his expectations on Europe – he had a lot of big plans but failed to create the coalitions he needed, with Germany and the states of ‘Central Europe, to implement them.’
The Dutch too, as the Netherlands and Germany rule the “frugal” nations of Europe together, are skeptical of Mr Macron’s penchant for spending more money on European projects.
Mr. Macron “knows this lesson and is making efforts in the context of the Russian war against Ukraine,” Mr. Shapiro said. “But it’s still Emmanuel Macron.”
In his second term, Mr Macron will “redouble his efforts” on the ideas for Europe he presented in his speech at the Sorbonne in 2017, “notably the idea of European sovereignty”, said Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, director of the Paris office. from the German Marshall Fund.
But in his second term, she predicted, he will be more pragmatic, building ‘coalitions of the willing and able’ even if he fails to win unanimity among the other 26 members of the Union. .
France holds the bloc’s rotating presidency until the end of June, and one of Mr Macron’s priorities will be to push forward an oil embargo against Russia, Ms de Hoop Scheffer said, a decision that has been complicated by the fact that many in the bloc depend on Moscow for energy.
The climate agenda is important to him, especially if he wants to reach out to the angry left and the Greens in France. And to do much in Europe, he will have to restore and strengthen the Franco-German relationship with a very different and divided new German government.
“This relationship is not easy, and when you look at the Franco-German couple, not much unites us,” Ms de Hoop Scheffer said.
There are differences over Mr Macron’s wish for more collective debt for another European recovery plan, given the effects of the war. There is also a lack of consensus on how to handle the response to Russia’s aggression, she said – how much to keep lines open to Mr Putin and what kinds of military support should be provided. to Ukraine in the face of German reluctance to provide heavy artillery.
Germany is much happier working in wartime NATO under US leadership than spending much time on Macron’s concept of European strategic autonomy, she noted. And Poland and other frontline states bordering Russia have never had much faith in Mr. Macron’s goal of strategic autonomy or his pledge to do nothing to undermine NATO, a sentiment underlined. by the current war.
If Mr Macron is smart, “French leadership in Europe will not be followed by other EU countries, but their empowerment, through their commitment to a new European vision”, said Nicholas Dungan, senior fellow of the Atlantic Council. “Macron can do it.”