When Nicolas Sarkozy became President of France, he declared that his country was back in mainstream Europe. Since then, Sarkozy has thrown himself into the European political fray.
His energy – combined with the negotiating talents of German Chancellor Angela Merkel – overcame antagonism toward the new reform treaty that EU leaders just ratified in Lisbon, putting the European Union back on its feet after two years of crippling indecision. But this triumph marked only a partial return by France to the European fold. The French must now resolve their own ambiguous attitudes about Europe, which have affected national policies for decades.
For half a century, France has mixed two radically different approaches to Europe. Some French see the EU as a community where national interests inexorably converge. At the other extreme is the Gaullist belief that the EU is nothing more than a “power multiplier for France to defend its own national interests.
Rather than using Europe to project French ideas across the continent, France needs to develop a culture of genuine power-sharing and compromise. Such a sea change would have profound implications for French policies across a broad spectrum, from internal EU issues and economics to foreign policy and Europe’s role in the world.
Consider the French executive. The president and government ministers treat Europe as their political preserve. Yet the prime minister never attends EU meetings and the foreign minister systematically leaves internal EU decisions to a junior secretary of state or a diplomatic representative.
Meanwhile, other ministers circumvent government instructions to get from Brussels what has been refused in Paris. Clearly, a better EU policymaking system needs to be found. For a start, the French parliament must be given a greater role and government ministers must drop their habit of blaming Brussels whenever they want to introduce unpopular economic or social reforms.
Sarkozy is particularly eager for France to be heard on economic policy. His election victory relied heavily on his plans to reform the labor market and to promote work and innovation. But if France is to be taken seriously by the rest of Europe, Sarkozy will have to deliver more than just growth and jobs. He will need to demonstrate that France no longer treats Europe as a scapegoat for its own economic troubles – a ploy that merely marginalizes France in economic debates. Thus, polemics against the European Central Bank’s independence and the damaging effect of “the high euro will have to stop.
France’s financial credentials also will have to improve if ministers’ views on EU monetary issues are to be taken seriously. For years, France has funded some of the highest public spending in Europe through budget deficits, despite its commitment to balance the books as part of the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact. Many EU members fear that Sarkozy’s government will again break French budget promises, as his demands for growth-boosting tax cuts imply pushing back the deadline for eliminating France’s deficit until 2012.
Similarly, French prudence will be under scrutiny during discussions of a new European financial framework, which will test France’s capacity to view EU budgets as something other than a means of redistributing EU cash, particularly to farmers. The Common Agricultural Policy still accounts for more than 40 percent of community expenditure, even though the farm sector accounts for only 2 percent of employment.
As for global security, it is clear that EU countries can exert international influence only when they speak with one voice. France must sort out its relations with Nato and the role it intends to play in transatlantic forums. This means dropping anti-American rhetoric and talk about “European power , which is meaningless for the majority of EU states. French and German disagreements with the United States in 2003 generated deep divisions in the EU. But recent changes in political leadership in the Britain, France, and Germany, together with the arrival of a new US administration in early 2009, could improve transatlantic cooperation.
Next, France and the EU must find a new model for dealing with Russia. Here, the Union is confronted with a dilemma. Does it consider Russia a powerful partner or a hostile neighbor? If France wants to take the lead on EU relations with Moscow, it must become far more sensitive to eastern and central European fears about Russia. French politicians underestimate the negative impact they have in these countries when they repeatedly refer to a Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis and criticize “excessive enthusiasm for the transatlantic alliance.
Sarkozy will need to take all this into account if he wants France to play a full part in shaping the EU’s future. France’s elites need to own up to the mistakes of the past and find better ways to confront today’s challenges. Ordinary French people also have much to consider: our attitudes toward the market, our relations with the rest of Europe, and our views about the world beyond the EU’s borders. If we come to terms with today’s complex realities, France could be back in Europe.
Thierry Chopinis director of studies for the Robert Schuman Foundation and Professor at the Collège d’Europe in Bruges. This article is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate/Europe’s World, 2007, (www.project-syndicate.org and www.europesworld.org).