28 May 2015

France takes a wrong turn over Europe


Last Tuesday Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel met in Berlin where they announced a tightening of their partnership and that they will not reopen the treaty for negotiations. Shutting the door on Cameron over his intention to renegotiate the European arrangement does not bode well for the EU in view of the upcoming referendum on British exit from the EU.

Britain’s departure would considerably change the dynamic within the European Union both economically, as the United Kingdom is one of the largest economies in Europe, and politically, being the largest European economy openly opposed to European federalism. It is unlikely that the referendum concerning Brexit will be avoided as for the current majority it is a central campaign promise and their main argument against UKIP.

Peoples act and think differently than politicians do. While state leaders are usually more concerned with their country’s strategic interest, people tend to care more about identity and well-being. Thus Britain’s strategic interest will be less relevant to the ultimate decision to leave or stay than the overall mood of the British public. For that, what will have most impact is not so much the British government’s attitude towards Europe than Europe’s attitude towards the apparent British will for regaining its sovereignty.

Right now there is no clear majority for or against Brexit according to polls by Yougov, Opinium, or Panelbase and around fifteen percent of the population remains undecided. It is up to the other European nations to decide if they try and negotiate with the UK to loosen Brussel’s grip on their governance or keep pushing for European integration to go even further, which would persuade the British voters to approve independence.

Even though an in/out consultation is only planned in the UK, other European governments like France, Spain or Italy have an interest in joining David Cameron in opposing federalism, both to maintain the UK inside the EU and for their own political success. Traditional parties currently in power in Europe are increasingly threatened by extreme parties that would see an end to the European Union as a whole, such as France’s Front National, which got one vote in five in the last presidential election and nearly one vote in four at the last European ballot (although European elections attract considerably less turnout).

These parties win votes through the public’s observation that for all their differences, mainstream parties are effectively at unison in approving European federalism and austerity. If they ended up in power, these leaders ‘ dogmatic opposition to liberal exchanges would have them deconstruct the European arrangements much further than just what is necessary to keep the British interested in staying in. The public’s hostility to European federalism in a country like France draws on several social and historic reasons.

Like in Britain, the memory of France being one of a handful of powerful countries in the world until World War Two makes it harder for the population to accept becoming essentially a province of a larger country. Also the founder of the current French republic, Charles de Gaulle, and one of the most respected figures in French history, had warned in his days against the surrender of sovereignty and now his image is still widely used by Eurosceptics. In many of the Mediterranean countries of Europe, the EU is inseparably associated with immigration which in turn is held responsible for problems such as unemployment and rising crime rates.

Another source of frustration is multinational companies using the Union’s free movement of capital for national tax avoidance. But these issues are only some of the implications of EU membership. Others include cooperation on technological projects (Airbus, for example), and of course the continued peace between European states are welcomed by the populations in all EU countries.

Satisfying popular grievances with Europe would therefore not require complete withdrawal but simply to maintain those advantages favoured by the public and adopt a more sovereign approach on the topics like immigration and the movement of capital, rather than a federation based on an all-or-nothing European constitution. The parties currently in power need to show it is not necessary to appeal to reactionary extremes to retain national sovereignty, and fight for it themselves alongside David Cameron. Recently, a former French president, Valery Giscard d’Estaing expressed his support for David Cameron and said he did not understand why France did not back him in European affairs.

There are really only a few issues which cause British voters to be hostile to the European Union: immigration, the centralization of powers to the European parliament and the European court of justice. These are only some of the implications of Britain’s membership of the EU and it would be perfectly conceivable for these matters to be entrusted back to Westminster without throwing away the entire system.

A good example of this discontent is the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European commission, despite his position in favour of federalism. Britain was left alone in opposition to this appointment despite the surge of sovereignist parties across Europe. Juncker is now UKIP’s favourite figure to represent what they denounce about the EU, especially since his home country is largely associated with the tax evasion of which Britain is also a victim.

If British voters are given the impression that they have no allies in their pursuit of reform in the EU so as to accommodate the issues they have with some of its components, it is inevitable they will reach the conclusion that exit is the only option for them to get satisfaction. Thus the unwillingness of European nations to oppose federalism is pushing the UK out of the Union.

Some grounds could be ceded to British sovereignism especially in the area of judicial authority. The European court of Justice has overruled a number of decisions by national courts under the authority of the jurisprudence set by the Costa v ENEL case of 1964, for example in the case of Karen Murphy v the Premier League in 2011.

The kind of European central governance that threatens to precipitate Brexit could also be bad for France and Southern European countries themselves, and therefore for the EU in general. As one of few countries in open opposition to German domination in the EU, Britain’s departure would leave Germany with even more authority over Europe, especially over the Mediterranean countries currently in crisis. Germany’s inclination to austerity is set to continue, and the austerity imposed on Southern countries would continue to stifle their recovery, which would be bad for Europe and especially the euro-zone.

That is not to say that countries such as Greece or Italy should count on Britain advocating for them in the euro debate since Britain is not in the euro zone. Rather, the central governance of the EU is what stops them from limiting austerity which happens to be what David Cameron is also fighting in his effort to renegotiate the European treaty. Thus countries in Southern Europe and France have an interest in supporting Cameron, that is to say adopt a similar position regarding the influence of Brussels and Berlin.

Of course, there remains the fact that for the euro to continue as a successful currency, there also needs to be closer fiscal coherence between member states, which is also argued by Mr. Giscard d’Estaing in the same interview. While this is true it seems unlikely that Southern countries will be able to adopt sustainable fiscal discipline without growth, which is currently compromised by austerity.

Europe does not have to be either fully integrated or nothing at all. The federal view of Europe does indeed call for a comprehensive union regarding every aspect of politics and ultimately erasing old nations in favour of the European super-state. However one can also support a European confederation. This is a union based permanently on the free will of each state and whose powers extend no further than what is desired by participants for a fruitful cooperation (as in technology, defence and trade) and what is required to ensure the collective security that has existed since the Second World War.

Such a confederation does not dictate to each people what its internal laws must be, nor does it presume to put an ideological leash on countries regarding issues which are of no concern to any of the others.  Keeping the British public keen on the EU will require a change of vision from Churchill’s “United States of Europe” to European institutions more respectful of national sovereignty.  So far French leaders have not decided to side with David Cameron. They will have to do so eventually or put at risk the EU, their country and themselves.

Clement Julhia is a CapX contributor