Although France remains a pivotal power, its 40-year domination of the EU is at an end. May's elections will be crucialby Thomas Klau / March 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Few countries display more self assurance than France. The French glory in their language, their history, their food. French politicians claim that their nation has a mission to civilise the world-a messianic arrogance France shares, like much else, with the US. Yet the country’s voice, these days, is muted. “In Berlin, London or Madrid, I get a clear idea of what the leadership wants,” says a senior EU politician. “In Paris, I get nothing: an absence, a void.” France, he says, no longer has a Europe policy. You will hear similar complaints from every EU capital.
So what is wrong? One explanation is the aberration of the French constitutional system which, since 1997, has been forcing Gaullist President Jacques Chirac into an antagonistic partnership, or cohabitation, with the socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin. Jospin’s chief of staff Olivier Schrameck gave a vivid rendering, in his recent book Matignon Rive Gauche, of the damage cohabitation can do to the government’s ability to formulate clear policies. For while the government has near total control of domestic policy, responsibility for foreign and defence policy is divided between the two branches of the executive, with the president claiming an ill-defined precedence. And sniping between the Elys?e-Palace, the president’s home, and the Hotel Matignon, seat of the prime minister, has grown in intensity as the two-round presidential election, scheduled for 21st April and 5th May 2002, draws closer, (followed immediately after by parliamentary elections).
Official doctrine, however, dictates that France speaks with one voice in dealing with the outside world and, to a surprising extent, it does. Both president and prime minister know that public clashes about foreign affairs and military matters would trigger a constitutional crisis and upset the voters: for cohabitation, despite its obvious drawbacks, is popular in France (as it is in many other countries: adversarial politics is rarely the people’s preferred choice). Yet this outward harmony carries a hefty price. It reinforces the status quo. Faced with the necessity of accommodating the views of a centre-right president and a centre-left government, France’s foreign and European policy is pushed towards a consensus- seeking middle ground. “For the first time since the beginning of the Fifth Republic, no major European policy proposal has emanated from the Elys?e during the life-time of a whole parliament,” France’s former socialist finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn wrote in his book La flamme et la cendre.
This is not to say, of course, that France’s foreign policy lacks a distinctive flavour. One policy stance with strong support across the political spectrum is resistance to US-dominated, free-market globalisation and free trade, especially when applied to cultural goods and farming. Another is a broad commitment to European integration and co-operation with Germany. Yet where no established consensus exists, or where a new foreign policy environment demands specific answers, cohabitation is slow to deliver. A striking example of policy failure induced by cohabitation was France’s management of the December 2000 EU summit in Nice. The French government’s conduct of the negotiations was hampered by Chirac’s refusal to consider an increase of the German vote in the council of ministers (ministers from national governments)-a counter-productive block on German interests which led to an acrimonious negotiating session and dented the reputation of French diplomacy. Yet this was a point on which Chirac might have yielded had he not been constrained by the competitive dynamic of cohabitation.
Cohabitation, however, is only one of the reasons for France’s current weakness on the European policy stage. There is a deeper problem too. Of all the big EU countries, it is France and Britain that have the longest and proudest histories as nation states. They have within living memory ruled over significant empires. Both states have been rule givers rather than rule takers, subjects of history rather than objects-and both are still run by centralised, powerful governments. For this reason both states have found it harder than others-such as Germany and Italy-to adapt to a multinational association like the EU. France dealt with the problem by becoming Europe’s political leader in the first 40 years of integration, (Britain, by remaining semi-detached). Europe was sold as an extension of the French state-this was the Gaullist compromise. The difficulty is that over the past 10 years German unification and the planned enlargement eastwards of the EU has undermined this strategy. As Pascal Lamy, the French EU commissioner and Jospin adviser, puts it: “Of the EU’s founding members, France has exerted most influence on its past shape and structure and is one of the countries that finds it most difficult to recognise itself in today’s EU.” (The Europe We Want, Policy Network.)
France’s inability to unite around a new Europe strategy was exposed by the debate on the EU’s future launched by Joschka Fischer in May 2000. Should Europe move towards a form of federalism with the nation states becoming more like the German l??nder, and the EU commission plus the council of ministers becoming a kind of European government in Brussels? Or should the nation state remain supreme in a new form of inter-governmentalism (with some supra-national elements) as Britain has historically favoured? The trouble with the former position is that there is not enough political or popular support for it in several European countries; the trouble with the latter position is that it threatens to make the EU unworkable, especially after enlargement.
Germany prefers a federalism based loosely on its own experience. Britain wants to stick with “inter-governmentalism-plus” and believes the problem of coherence can be resolved with some institutional tinkering, such as abolishing the rotating presidency. What does France want? No one knows. Chirac, in his speech to the German Bundestag in June 2000, as well as his subsequent interventions on the subject, has made no serious proposal for institutional reform whatsoever. Jospin, who spoke out after much prodding in May 2001, delivered what he himself regarded as a “holding speech”-although to his delight it was rather generously received.
Given that French politicians were the first to warn that enlarging the EU eastwards would deeply affect the way it works, the French political class’s current silence on the subject is rather surprising. One solution which might have preserved some of France’s leadership role, was to forge a “hard core”-a nucleus of states, probably based on the eurozone or the founding six, going for deeper political integration than the EU as a whole. Some politicians, such as Strauss-Kahn, still espouse it, but recent developments have seriously weakened the idea. The most important problem is the sheer popularity of the euro, which turned out to encompass not seven or eight states, but 12. To forge an avant-garde around 12 or more countries makes little sense, as any institutional model applicable to such a large group might as well be extended to the EU as a whole. Yet to disconnect the avant-garde from the eurozone would create three tiers of integration, turn the EU’s already complex institutional machinery into something wholly impenetrable and also threaten the cohesion of monetary union.
“It is too late for nostalgia about the supposed virtues of a six-nation Europe,” Le Monde wrote in February. But if no hard core, then what? The hard core, once espoused by French grandees from Giscard d’Estaing to Jacques Delors, was designed to prevent the old model of European integration from sinking under the weight of enlargement. But without the hard core, enlargement will force Europe’s nations into a choice which the French, in particular, would prefer to avoid. With two years to go before the inclusion of up to ten new member states, the nation’s elite must confront the unresolved ambiguity of its European ambitions.
France, the country of many revolutions, the disestablishment of the Catholic church and the Dreyfus affair, is used to ideological faultlines running right through its society and politics. The most important divide today is summed up in the names of Jean Monnet and Charles de Gaulle. Monnet was the political genius who, amid the ruins of the second world war, invented the m?thode communautaire, the federalist formula designed to secure lasting peace through a gradual merger of European sovereignties into a United States of Europe. De Gaulle rejected this vision as one of “myths, fictions and parades,” and saw the nation state not as a source of chronic instability, but as the only political entity “valid, legitimate and able” to impose discipline and weather the storms of history. Monnet and De Gaulle stand for two radically opposed views. Each has deeply influenced French policy on Europe.
A common ground between these two views might seem impossible to find. France’s European policy bears the stretchmarks of the two forces pulling in opposite directions (as do the EU treaties). Yet, the Gaullist compromise-France accepted European integration so long as it proceeded under its leadership-did work for the first few decades of European integration. The European commission was largely modelled on France’s administration. French or French-speaking bureaucrats controlled the key levers in Brussels, and French was the language in which Brussels-based politicians, officials and journalists were expected to conduct their business. The most significant expression of French influence was the EU’s common agricultural policy, which has turned France into a “green superpower” and kept its violence-prone farmers quiet under a shower of subsidies (at great expense to consumers and taxpayers in the rest of Europe). While never fully at ease with Monnet’s Europe, the Gaullist part of the French psyche found peace in the knowledge that Europe’s constitutional practice gave Paris (and every other EU member) the right to block any unpalatable decision-a safeguard enshrined in 1966, when the so-called Luxembourg compromise gave every EU state the right to veto any move contravening its essential national interest.
German unification in 1990 upset this formula. It established Germany as the dominant partner, and revived France’s old nightmare of having to submit to a neighbour more powerful than itself. (The English in the middle ages, the Hapsburgs in the 16th and earlier 17th century, later the British and the Germans-France’s history is an unsuccessful struggle for pre-eminence in Europe, with Louis XIV’s heyday the one glorious, short-lived, period of supremacy).
The combination of Germany’s extra size (its population rose from 64m to 80m after unification) and the retirement of the war generation caused it to press its national claims with more vigour in a less French-dominated Brussels. This was particularly so after Gerhard Schr?der’s SPD-Green coalition defeated Helmut Kohl in 1998. There have subsequently been fewer Franco-German initiatives and far more open clashes. At the Berlin summit in 1999, Chirac rejected a radical Schr?der plan for reform of the common agricultural policy which would have renationalised much of the subsidy regime. And at the Nice summit in December 2000 Germany failed to win extra votes in the council of ministers but instead won extra representation in the European parliament. (With the parliament’s growing power, this was more than a token concession; the extra German MEPs were, for example, instrumental in blocking an important takeover directive last year, much to the annoyance of British business.)
Furthermore, the opening up to EU membership of eastern and central Europe-part of Germany’s traditional zone of influence-makes it impossible to continue blending the conflicting visions of Monnet and de Gaulle into a single European policy. The reason is clear. In an EU with over two dozen states, the Gaullist-British idea of running Europe through a high table of national presidents and prime ministers, each sitting in front of a veto-button, is unworkable. Even in today’s EU of 15 states with a long-standing habit of cooperation and compromise, decisions such as the establishment of a European patent office or the creation of a European company statute can be delayed for years or decades by one or two member states’ readiness to block them. This veto has, in theory, been replaced by the complex formulas of qualified majority voting (QMV) in the single market deliberations of the council of ministers (with the important exception of tax). But rather than apply QMV, ministers often prefer to wait for a consensus to emerge and defer decisions to the heads of government (in the European council) who, by tradition, have always operated by unanimity. Enlargement will bring this era to an end. It is impossible for an EU with 25 members to function if each has a written or unwritten power to block any big decision.
Yet the veto is the nation state’s last redoubt. Strip it away in other areas and Brussels could swiftly take precedence over the nation state in all major policy fields-something to which there is strong opposition in several EU states. The veto is the key issue and several proposals for grappling with it are under review in Berlin and even London; yet neither Jospin nor Chirac have even addressed it.
To make matters even more difficult for France’s political class, the dissolution of the country’s European strategy has been exacerbated by President Mitterrand’s surprise move to stage a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty in September 1992. Mitterrand’s gamble to weaken a conservative opposition deeply divided on Emu, while securing popular approval for monetary union, narrowly succeeded, but at the price of splitting the electorate into two equal halves. The referendum brought to light the extent of the potential opposition to further integration. Worse, it became apparent that the debate was apt to split both the left and the right into two passionately opposed factions. Prominent politicians such as Charles Pasqua, a Gaullist baron, Philippe de Villiers, an ultra-conservative Catholic, Jean-Pierre Chev?nement, a socialist and nationalist, broke away from their respective parties to argue against further EU integration. Pasqua has become an irrelevance and de Villiers has lost much of his audience, but Chev?nement successfully positioned himself as standard-bearer of French nationhood, against European federalism, globalisation and US dominance. The left-wing maverick and former interior minister is likely to win at least 10 per cent of the presidential vote, and might disrupt the electoral calculations of Chirac and Jospin.
Since Jospin’s ascent to the premiership, following Chirac’s failed attempt to secure a conservative parliamentary majority by calling new elections in 1997, politics and personalities have combined to make France’s current leadership highly sensitive to the dangers of formulating a clear-cut European policy. Indeed, Chirac’s disastrous decision to dissolve parliament was prompted partly by the need to bring down France’s budgetary deficit ahead of the start of Emu in 1999. Since the beginning of their stand-off in 1997, both Chirac and Jospin have had their eyes firmly set on the forthcoming presidential election. Both men are keenly aware that, in order to win, they will need the support of at least part of the anti-European fraction of the electorate, and both have trodden a cautious line designed to give pro-Europeans some fodder, while doing as little as possible to arouse the souverainistes, as Eurosceptics are known in France. (An exception was Chirac’s decision to launch the Franco-British European defence initiative in 1998. But that could be portrayed as a bid to loosen the US’s de facto monopoly of European defence.)
A fragmented leadership; a Gaullist tradition influential across the party political spectrum; an uneasy new relationship with Germany and trepidation about enlargement-one could be forgiven for assuming Europe had better forget Paris, and turn to others to fill the leadership gap. Yet, France remains pivotal, if no longer dominant, in the EU.
At their latest Laeken summit in December last year, EU leaders agreed to convene a constitutional convention on EU reform which has the potential to become a turning point in European history. In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, its chairman, grandly compared his gathering of parliamentarians, government ministers and semi-retired political grandees to the Philadelphia convention which drafted the US constitution. The 105-member convention, which formally takes up its work on 28th February, has been mandated to submit its proposals to EU heads of state and governments by March 2003. Plenary sessions will be held in public, but the aim is to ensure that the debate about the future of the EU moves beyond speech-making and into a serious examination of whether and how the EU must change to accommodate ten new member states two years from now (see Brussels diary, p71).
The content of the convention’s final report is not set in advance-and Giscard has shrewdly disassociated himself from his earlier “hard core” views. The political weight of the convention’s recommendations will be considerable, provided it comes up with coherent proposals. This is due in part to the stalemate in the EU governance debate and the inability of traditional EU intergovernmental conferences to come up with convincing blueprints for reform.
Moreover, the present circle of EU leaders lacks its customary Franco-German leadership, and is desperately short of ideas. “When I look around the table, I see that none of us has a clue about how the EU can work with 25 member states,” confided the leader of one EU state. “I deeply believe that the nation state is the central political entity in Europe, that there is no such thing as a European demos, and that there won’t be one for a long time, if ever. And yet it is clear that the structure we have built so far, and which just about works with 15 of us, cannot function when we are 25. So what is the answer? I don’t know.” He had, he said, been amongst those who viewed a convention with much scepticism. “But I have changed my mind on that. We are now all waiting for it to come up with something.”
Although national governments do retain the final decision about how to draft the new EU Treaty in 2003-2004, they have, by calling the convention, relinquished their traditional monopoly of Europe’s constitutional process, and opened the door to proposals for radical change. Yet the convention members-delegated by governments and parliaments-will not debate in a political vacuum. The discussions will reflect national preoccupations and priorities. Delegates will be inspired by demands and proposals circulating in their home country, and in some cases take direct instructions from their government.
This brings us back to France: divided and defensive but still pivotal. Why? EU countries fall into two broad groups, with a third group hesitating and waiting for the debate to unfold. Germany and the Benelux three have taken the lead in arguing for a model strengthening the EU’s federal features. Italy, although traditionally the most integration-minded state in the EU, is now amongst the unknown quantities, given Silvio Berlusconi’s Gaullist instincts. Britain, Sweden and Denmark are expected to mount a vigorous defence of intergovernmentalism and some version of the national veto. This configuration gives Paris the swing vote. Should France fall in with Germany and the three Benelux states, the pull of the federalist camp will be strong. Other countries would soon join in, and the balance would swing towards severely limiting the national veto. Even more certain is the outcome should France opt to keep the national veto. France’s backing would encourage others to follow suit, including many enlargement candidates. Germany and the Benelux three alone do not carry enough weight to pull doubters into their camp, and the last chance to scrap the veto before enlargement in 2004 would be gone.
So the winner of the French presidential elections in May will have more influence than any other single politician on how the chips will fall in Europe’s great constitutional debate. Barring an unexpected electoral swing, the contest between the two leading candidates will be a close one. Early opinion polls indicate that the French will not punish Chirac for the accusations of fraud and corruption swirling around his long tenure as mayor of Paris. But with little to show for his seven years in the Elys?e-in effect he has spent the last five as leader of the opposition-Chirac will wage a campaign centred around his own expansive personality and try to capitalise on the fact that the French find him more sympathique than his straight-laced opponent. Jospin has remained free from fraudulent entanglements and has governed with some success. The disarray of the centre-right political parties should also help him. But he lacks the panache many French people expect in their president, and has been unable to generate any excitement about a Jospin presidency.
As France has the swing vote in Europe, the president has the swing vote in France. Both candidates have rejected a federal Europe, and vigorously defend the old Monnet-de Gaulle compromise. Jospin, moreover, harbours a lingering distrust of the EU for what he perceives as its free-market, liberalising, Anglo-Saxon bias; while Chirac, although more inclined than in the past to whip up European rhetoric, has never formulated a European strategy. Yet both Chirac and Jospin are experienced players, and can measure the enormous impact EU reform will have on the next president’s term of office. Both know that the tide of European integration can sweep aside those who, like Margaret Thatcher, resist it too long. The new president will be reminded that denying Europe the change it needs would almost certainly trigger an institutional crisis in the second half of his five-year term, and very likely weaken further France’s diminished clout in Europe. Will Monnet soon be seen as a safer bet than de Gaulle?