The far-left firebrand's plan to completely overhaul the EU or call a referendum on membership if he doesn't get his way is as naive and dangerous as David Cameron's 2015 gambit.
Two years ago, British Prime Minister David Cameron was running scared.
Faced with unending sniping about the European Union from his backbench MPs, and a UK Independence Party with the wind at their backs (they had finished first in the UK's European Parliament election the year before), Cameron panicked. He promised to 'renegotiate' the terms of Britain's membership of the EU, and then hold an in-out referendum based on the result.
As The Economist wrote earlier this month, it was a solution in search of a problem. Only 5% of British people saw the EU as one of the most important issues facing Britain at the time (more than half see it that way today). It was a move to placate politicians in his own party, not to address any real pressing concern from the public.
Because it was a purely political move rather than a substantive one, Brussels was left bemused. Cameron could not spell out specifically what he wanted to renegotiate - he had to develop the ideas after triggering the renegotiation. In the end, as everyone predicted, the changes agreed were extremely minor and cosmetic.
Any serious renegotiation was impossible, because it would have required opening up the treaties for all member states. It was not possible for the UK to single-handedly strongarm exceptions only for itself. And the types of fundamental changes that would have made any difference would have involved an entire restructuring of how the EU works.
Given that the EU had just agreed a massive overhaul after five years of difficult votes and negotiations (the 2005 constitution that eventually became the 2009 Lisbon Treaty), there was no way that such a massive overhaul was on the cards. And if any country could have convinced the EU28 to engage in such an exercise, it certainly wasn't the UK. Britain punches well below its weight in Europe and has few developed alliances.
The renegotiation was always folly. It was inevitably going to end in a referendum in which the renegotiation theatre would have zero impact. It was this naive idea for a renegotiation, and Cameron's belief that it would enable him to campaign for the UK to remain in a union he and his party had spent years vilifying, that led to Brexit. It also led to Cameron's own downfall.
The 1930s are back
Flash forward two years. With just 11 days to go until the French election, the Communist-backed Jean-Luc Mélenchon is experiencing a sudden surge. What looked to be a sure second round run-off between the pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen has now been cast into uncertainty.
Mélenchon is now polling at 18%, above the centre-left and centre-right candidates Benoît Hamon (9%) and François Fillon (17%). He is nipping at the heels of the ‘insurgent’ candidates Macron and Le Pen, who each stand at 24%, according to polling released on Monday by Kantar Sofres. The top two candidates in the election’s first round on 23 April will go head-to-head in a second round on 7 May.
Suddenly there is the prospect of the French final round presidential election being between a far-right nationalist and a far-left communist. The 1930s are back. Markets are starting to get jittery. Both of these people have, in the past, floated the idea of calling referendums on France's membership of the EU.
The two are from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, but on the question of globalisation they sound remarkably similar. They both call the EU a failed project that is not delivering for citizens, saying the best results can be delivered with the nation-state model. They are both anti-free-trade and want to dismantle the liberal democratic world order.
At the same time, both of them are currently trying to downplay this aspect of their ideology. Britain's Brexit vote and its aftermath has made continental Europeans turn away from any flirtation with leaving the EU. Polling shows there is not a majority, or anything near it, in any EU country at the moment that favors the idea of their country leaving the EU. In France, less than a third of people would even want to see a referendum on the question. And so the 'r word' has disappeared from the extremist candidates' rhetoric.
Mélenchon would pull a Cameron
To get a full picture of what Mélenchon intends for the EU, we need to go back some years. He is no stranger to French politics, having run for president in 2012 when his anti-globalization message garnered him 11% of the vote in the first round.
Then, as now, he promised a wholesale transformation of the French state – a dismantling of the French fifth republic with its powerful presidency and the creation of a new sixth republic. He would push for a complete transformation of the European Union. And if he can’t get it, he will invite the French people to vote in a referendum on whether to leave the EU.
He is essentially promising the same thing that Cameron promised in 2014, but for different reasons.
In his manifesto, Mélenchon proposes to completely overhaul the European project with a series of drastic reforms. The French voters could then “accept the reformed terms of EU membership or leave the Union”.
Such an approach, thinking that France can dictate to the EU the terms of its future, didn't work for the UK and there is no reason to think it should work now. Contrast this with the approach of Emmanuel Macron, who has promised to initiate a constitutional convention in the Autumn, after the German election, in which all of Europe would take part to reform the union and make it fit for purpose. Macron's plan is not accompanied by any threat to walk away from the union if he doesn't get his way.
Mélenchon has a list of demands that would never be accepted by his EU partners. He wants the euro to shift to being a "shared" currency rather than a "single" currency, and to suspend basic provisions of the EU single market.
Unlike Cameron, Mélenchon hasn't come up with his plan as a crude device to placate a subgroup of politicians. For him, this is ideological. He views the EU as a capitalist cabal that could never deliver the Socialist paradise he envisions for France.
There is no reason to believe his stance has softened. Even if it has, how will he square his years of EU-bashing with a refusal to call or referendum or renegotiate the European project? He will be trapped by his own past words, just as Cameron was.
There is a reason Mélenchon, like Le Pen, is not keen to talk about this now. The French public sees the chaos and uncertainty that has befallen the UK as a result of the Brexit vote. Emmanuel Macron would be well served to remind the public over the next ten days of the radical plans for the EU his extremist opponents have talked about in the past.