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Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders.
Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders.

DOUG SAUNDERS

In France and Britain, for want of an opposition the EU could be lost Add to ...

What if Europe fell apart because nobody wanted to fight for it?

The collapse of Europe’s mainstream centre-left opposition parties and the rise of populist movements on the right mean that France and Britain both appear poised to face elections in which none of the major parties support membership in the European Union – raising the risk of creeping isolationism-by-attrition.

Tuesday morning’s surprise call for a June 8 election by British Prime Minister Theresa May was an attempt to consolidate her Conservative Party’s majority through 2022 – possibly long enough to negotiate and implement her “Brexit” withdrawal from the EU, and to keep the anti-Brexit faction within her party from challenging her leadership. It also means that Ms. May’s Conservatives will face an opposition Labour Party, led by the far-left nationalist Jeremy Corbyn, which shows no interest in fighting an election over EU membership, and little chance of winning.

Read more: Britain's snap election: What happens next

Mr. Corbyn did not even mention Brexit in the three-paragraph statement he issued in response to Ms. May’s election call; he instead focused on economic and living-standards issues such as budget cuts to education and health care. This follows his decision to use a three-line whip to order his MPs to support Ms. May’s bill triggering Brexit, which received royal assent March 16 (almost 50 of those MPs defied the order).

Meanwhile in France, Sunday’s first-round presidential election presents a plausible possibility (though far from a certainty) that the field will be narrowed to two candidates who both oppose the EU.

Marine Le Pen, the extreme-right leader of the xenophobic and isolationist National Front, could wind up in a showdown in the May 7 final-round election against the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who endorses trade protectionism, economic nationalism and withdrawal from the EU.

This outcome is made possible by the dramatic collapse in popular support for France’s conventional centre-left opposition party, the Socialists – part of a Europe-wide decline of major social-democratic and left-leaning liberal parties that has struck France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands and Britain.

That collapse has driven some voters to left-populist figures such as Mr. Corbyn and Mr. Mélenchon, whose anti-Europe, pro-Russian views are similar to those of Ms. Le Pen or Donald Trump, but minus the anti-immigrant xenophobia and racial intolerance.

(Unlike Ms. May and Ms. Le Pen, who view the EU as a left-wing source of bureaucracy and immigrants, Mr. Mélenchon and Mr. Corbyn’s anti-Europe MPs view the EU as a right-wing source of capitalism and free-market economics.)

However, other voters are turning to pragmatic centre-left candidates. In Britain, that could mean gains (but not a victory) for the moderate Liberal Democrats. In France, the main beneficiary has been Emmanuel Macron, a centre-left independent candidate who is still favoured by most observers to win the first-round contest on Sunday with the most votes. But the polls show Mr. Macron in a statistical tie with Mr. Mélenchon and centre-right candidate François Fillon, so almost anything is possible, including an anti-Europe showdown.

Britain’s election is all but certain to be an anti-Europe victory. Mr. Corbyn has lost millions of voters over his decision last year not to fight actively for EU membership in the Brexit referendum; he is widely blamed for having helped create the defeat.

A January study by the Labour-affiliated Fabian Society found that of the 9 million Britons who voted Labour in the 2015 election (in which the Tories won a surprise majority), only 5 million now intend to vote Labour. Of the other 4 million, 400,000 have defected to the centre-left Liberal Democrats, 200,000 to the Conservatives, and 200,000 to the anti-Europe UKIP party. More than half said they are undecided or plan not to vote.

Even many of those who plan to vote for his party do not want Mr. Corbyn in power. Indeed, a survey taken April 11 by the Opinium polling company found that only 45 per cent of Labour voters want Mr. Corbyn to be prime minister – and 16 per cent of them favour Ms. May. (By comparison, 90 per cent of Conservative voters want Ms. May to be prime minister).

The Fabians’ analysis concluded that “an outright Labour victory is now virtually unthinkable,” as the party would need to produce a much larger swing in votes than it did in the 2015 election, which it lost. As with France, Britain could end up drifting away from Europe simply because nobody has the electoral will or ability to make the case for membership.

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Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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