Last Tuesday saw a press conference held in Italy that sent shivers through the rest of Western Europe. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini met in the latter’s ‘Lombard fiefdom’ of Milan to discuss their joint approach to the European Union in advance of the next year’s EU parliamentary elections.
Neither man has much love for the EU. Mr Orbán’s far-right Fidesz party has received a huge boost in domestic support for its hard-line nationalism and aggressive approach to halting migration. Mr Salvini’s Northern League – part of Italy’s governing right-wing coalition – has likewise taken an uncompromising stance on free movement, most recently refusing to host refugees fleeing North Africa (a decision facilitated by Mr Salvini’s simultaneous position as interior minister). Both intend to take their personal brands of nationalist populism to the European Parliament next year, expecting to net disgruntled supporters from across the continent.
However, what was unusual about the Milan conference is that, rather than attacking the EU institution, Mr Orbán and Mr Salvini picked French president Emmanuel Macron as their target. Mr Orbán attacked the centrist leader’s broadly open immigration policy, claiming that France represented a ‘European force that backs migration’. Meanwhile Mr Salvini focused on the Italian government’s quarrels with Mr Macron, accusing him of calling for greater European cooperation whilst ignoring Italy. Both then jointly accused the French president of trying to ‘blow up’ the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) bloc in the EU Parliament – a group that includes Fidesz and Forza Italia, the Northern League’s populist allies currently led by Silvio Berlusconi.
Mr Macron’s response was swift. Speaking from a visit to Denmark, he remarked that Mr Orbán and Mr Salvini were ‘right to consider him a threat’ to their xenophobic approach to Europe. Mr Macron added that France would give no leeway ‘to nationalists and those who advocate hate speech’ – a comment aimed particularly at Mr Orbán, whose rhetoric frequently swings between dog-whistle antisemitism and apocalyptic islamophobia. It is also likely that these remarks were at least partly aimed at Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National (previously the Front National), whose political presence utterly collapsed in the wake of the 2017 French presidential election.
The reason for Mr Macron’s immediate reply to the leaders of two relatively weak European states is simple: now that he is the figurehead of liberal Europe, he cannot allow attacks from the populist Right to go unanswered. Europe’s liberal voters need a solid alternative to the parties that come under the EPP umbrella, and Mr Macron is in a clear position to lead that alternative.
He has already started work on recruiting European parties to form a new centrist bloc for 2019. This strategy echoes his approach to the presidential election, in which he created the new En Marche! party and used it to smash aside the feeble opposition put up by established socialist and conservative parties. Such a plan could work on a continental level. Spain’s new leader Pedro Sanchez has already shown himself amenable to the pro-EU policies of Mr Macron (including sanctions on states that refuse to accept refugees), whilst more centrist governments in Belgium, the Netherlands and Scandinavia may be happy to join the flock.
A victory for a new centrist coalition in the EU Parliament would not only be a major boost to liberals in Europe, but would also help further Mr Macron’s view of turning France into the key power in Europe. A deal with the Germans – as some commentators are predicting – would most likely result in a German president of the European Commission (taking over from the incumbent Jean-Claude Juncker, a Luxembourger) and a French president of the European Central Bank. Once the influential but troublesome British vanish from Brussels in 2019, France and Germany will be able to wield far more power.
Italy and Hungary, for all their bluster, remain small fry compared to France and Germany. Other European countries may seem to be falling to right-wing populism, such as Poland and Austria, but outside of Mr Orbán and Mr Salvini’s friendship they lack cohesive organisation. It is therefore important that Mr Macron swats down any attempts to challenge France’s ascension to the position of leading liberal power in Europe.
Mr Orbán and Mr Salvini are correct to see Mr Macron as their enemy. His proactive approach to 2019 may derail their plans to push the EU in their preferred direction of outright xenophobia. For liberal Europe, this is too good a chance to miss.