A reforming president in France can trigger reforms in Europe


National reforms need to go hand in hand with European reforms

Sylvie Goulard is a French Mouvement Démocrate Member of the European Parliament and a Friends of Europe Trustee

The 2017 French presidential elections are an opportunity for change. They are an opportunity for the citizens to elect a president who will create a new place for France in today’s globalised world; who will tell citizens the truth about opportunities and what’s needed to seize them. Far from trying to stop one candidate, this election must be about regeneration and growth for France.

For too long France has been living beyond its economic means, placing the burden on future generations rather than undertaking much-needed reforms to make public debt sustainable. France’s competitiveness has been falling in recent years, something that is clearly reflected in international trade figures. Many talented and highly competent people are losing motivation. Significant reforms to the education system are also required, to provide people with the skills that are needed for the modern job market. France is the country of ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’, but too many citizens find themselves permanently excluded from the system.

There are significant geopolitical threats facing France and the rest of the European Union, and these will hang over the new president. Following Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States it is evident, for the first time since the Second World War, that American policy will be aimed at dividing Europe rather than uniting it. The Turkish and Russian Presidents, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin respectively, are at the EU borders, with interests that they will defend relentlessly, violating the European values of freedom, liberal democracy and the rule of law.

For the first time since the EU’s creation a member state, and a major one at that, has opted to leave. This event will have deep consequences for the EU but also for individual countries, including France. Time will tell what kind of deal will be negotiated, but the interests of all EU citizens need to be defended. National politics is incapable of responding adequately to threats such as climate change and terrorism; neither greenhouse gas emissions nor terrorists respect international borders.

France has much that it can bring to the European project but it is not living up to its potential

Not all these reforms will be easy but they are essential. And I believe that if citizens get a full explanation for the changes, then they will be ready not just to accept them, but even to support them.

So these elections in France are an opportunity to reject overly-simplistic, unrealistic solutions, and instead propose concrete, achievable projects that will make a difference to citizens’ lives – starting with the most marginalised. Lies told before elections create disappointment afterwards.

France has much that it can bring to the European project, to strengthen and reform it, but it is not living up to its potential. Over the last twenty years it has failed to show itself as a committed partner with a vision for the European project. This means, inevitably, that it has lost European influence.

France needs significant and credible reforms, in addition to balancing the budget and reducing public spending. In many cases, decision-making power should be devolved from Paris to regional and local authorities. Here, people fully understand the complexities of their specific situation and are better able to create innovative solutions. For example, a greater police presence in communities can develop relationships and networks that contribute to protecting citizens from security threats.

Better management of our reduced public finances is essential. To break the vicious cycle of social exclusion and poverty, often linked to long-term unemployment and limited education, more resources need to be allocated to the most deprived areas. Through this we can ensure that all of France’s young people gain the skills required to find their place in the workforce of the 21st century. For adults too, we can help those lacking in marketable skills to retrain, so that we can adapt to the new flexible working models that are now flourishing. This is essential if we are to create a truly inclusive society. It is only once these reforms have been undertaken that France can truly be seen as a credible partner on the European stage.

Backroom, opaque deals need to stop, and citizens need to be better informed about how and why decisions were made

National reforms need to go hand in hand with European reforms. In certain fields national sovereignty has been pooled to the European level, giving the EU sovereignty on the global stage. Trade is an exclusive European competence and yet this European sovereignty needs to be reinforced to ensure that the best possible trade deals are negotiated and ratified, and that they include ambitious social and environmental norms.

The same is true for economic and monetary union (EMU). Remarkable progress has been made so far – for example, the European Stability Mechanism rescue fund, created to provide stability to the eurozone, and the Banking Union. But governance remains incomplete. There are flaws that urgently need to be addressed. EMU needs to be strengthened and given its own budget to enable it to pursue genuine European policies.

Increased decision-making at the European level needs to be accompanied with genuine democratic reforms within the EU, to ensure greater transparency and accountability. Backroom, opaque deals need to stop, and citizens need to be better informed about how and why decisions were made. These reforms do not automatically require a treaty change.

European sovereignty needs to be created in other fields too. In 2017, with international terrorist networks, wars on the EU’s doorstep and post-truth politics reaping electoral success, we cannot remain static. As Donald Trump looks to weaken NATO, we need to strengthen European defence sovereignty, which can complement other international cooperation. This would make the EU stronger, safer and provide significant savings to national budgets. If Europe controls its external borders it will be able to provide security to its citizens. This must be genuinely European control, not a pooling of national controls, starting with a real EU border force and coastguard. A European intelligence bureau is needed, not merely the mechanisms for member states to share information if they feel like it. National egos and competition must be put to one side. It is measures like these that will address citizens’ very legitimate fears.

Far from the French elections being about trying to stop something out of fear, they are about embracing the chance of creating something better and stronger, and increasing our potential – as individuals and as a Union. The populists win when moderates do not offer a credible alternative. By electing a French president with a vision of how to create a strong, influential Europe, the citizens of France can contribute to this vision becoming a reality.

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