In Brief

EU leaders use Brexit to warn of populist threat

Donald Tusk and Emmanuel Macron warn against influence of hostile foreign forces ahead of European Parliament elections

Donald Tusk and Emmanuel Macron have called on voters across Europe to reject anti-EU populist parties set up by hostile foreign forces trying to seize control of Brussels.

Speaking ahead of May’s crucial European Parliament elections which will shape the future direction of the bloc for years to come, Tusk, the European Council president warned “there are external anti-European forces which are seeking - openly or secretly - to influence the democratic choices of the Europeans”.

Much to the chagrin of Brexiteers, he specifically singled out the Leave result in the EU referendum as one such example.

His intervention marks “one of the starkest warnings yet from the bloc about the prospect that openly anti-EU parties could gain ground in May’s European Parliament election”, reports Reuters.

Nationalist parties seen as hostile to the EU already control Hungary and Poland, and share power in Italy and Austria.

Last month, a report by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFH) suggested anti-EU parties could gain a third of the vote in May. This key threshold means they would wield enough power to block or curb EU legislation, wreak havoc with the bloc’s foreign and trade policy, as well as paralyze efforts to prevent an illiberal drift in some EU countries.

In what appears like a coordinate assault, Tusk’s comments came just hours after a 1,600-word op-ed by French President Emmanuel Macron was published in newspapers across each of the European Union’s 28 member countries.

Published in the UK in The Guardian, the article sounded the alarm about foreign interference and called for the formation of a first-of-its kind EU-wide body to protect voting from “cyber-attacks and manipulations” and to counter fake news.

According to Bloomberg, “Macron wants to rally parties that still believe in greater European integration ahead of the late May EU parliament elections, which will be held in the shadow of the UK’s imminent departure and a spirit of nationalism gripping several countries across the EU, from founding members like Italy to relative newcomers like Slovakia.”

However, The Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent James Crisp said the French president’s vision for the EU’s future “will exacerbate deep divisions between the bloc’s western and eastern countries”.

“His call for a ‘European renaissance’ of deeper integration is a declaration of war on the EU’s arriviste nations and a call for the creation of an elite group of richer, Western, eurozone countries that would rule Brussels and be dominated in turn by Paris and Berlin,” he writes.

Yet in Britain’s imminent departure from the EU, Macron may have found a useful political punching bag.

The Financial Times says that in his column, “Macron avoids direct confrontation with European populists. Brexit, rather than Eurosceptic leaders in Rome or Budapest, is Macron’s hook to warn of the threat of ‘nationalist retrenchment’”.

In the past Macron has painted himself as the saviour of the European project, at every turn pushing greater EU integration – with decidedly mixed results.

“Now he is back with more of the vision thing, but this time observers detect a shift,” says the BBC’s Hugh Schofield.

“Today the focus seems to be more on protection, defence and borders - rather than economic and social convergence; and more on intergovernmental cooperation, rather than federalism. A nod perhaps to the power of his foes, and their ‘populist’ rationale,” he says.

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