European integration has always been a collective endeavour that demands a convergence of different national ideas. Germany’s influence on competition policy or monetary affairs is plain to see, as is the UK’s on the single market. So perhaps, the question is whether we need a firmer hand on the EU helm, particularly now that the quality of leadership is so important in an EU of 27 very heterogeneous member states. The EU needs stronger leadership for domestic and external reasons. In the first place, there has to be a major effort to reconcile European citizens with the EU. The Irish “no” confirmed how puzzled our citizens are about European integration. Just like the French and the Dutch three years ago, although Irish “no” voters don’t want their country to leave the Union, and probably don’t want to block the overall integration process, they clearly no longer understand its purpose. When it comes down to essentials, they don’t trust their leaders enough to adopt the deal negotiated on their behalf. In short, the crisis is a crisis of leadership.
Secondly, we need stronger leadership to better defend the EU’s values and interests in today’s rapidly changing world. Right now, Europe is all too rarely perceived by the outside world as being truly united. Of course there are some fields like trade or competition policy where the relevant EU commissioners are known and respected worldwide, as is the President of the European Central Bank. But in diplomacy, energy, justice and home affairs, “Europe” simply doesn’t exist in the minds of third parties. All too often, they deal directly with national governments, and find that by splitting us they can benefit substantially from our differences.
"When the EU’s national leaders admit in public that they have not read the agreements they are supposed to be promoting, what chance have they of convincing people that they take Europe seriously?"
Because power in the EU is shared between the member states and “Brussels”, leadership is everywhere and nowhere. The President of the Commission and other members of the college are regularly bashed by the national governments. The European Council is supposed to act as a European institution, but some of its members seem less than committed to Europe once they get back home. None of Europe’s national leaders are elected on a political platform where they spell out what they intend to do at a European level; they each communicate only with their own national media.
Worse still, the heads of government who make up the European Council don’t always put into practice the policies they collectively commit themselves to, with perhaps the best example of this being the Lisbon strategy for making the European economy truly competitive at a global level. And in 2005, the French and the Dutch governments did not really do their best and take political risks to get the Constitutional treaty ratified, just as the Irish government, and Ireland’s EU commissioner refrained from being “pushy” in the run-up to this summer’s referendum.
When the EU’s national leaders admit in public that they have not read the agreements they are supposed to be promoting, what chance have they of convincing people that they take Europe seriously? The leaders of other member states have also failed at times to demonstrate their strong commitment to the EU; even though they are legally obliged to take the steps needed to ratify a treaty they have signed, London did not care to do so in 2005 once the Constitutional treaty seemed doomed, and now both Warsaw and Berlin seem to be taking the same view of the Lisbon treaty.
Exercising European-level political leadership has never been easy. In 1950, Paul-Henri Spaak, the Belgian statesman who was one of Europe’s founding fathers, addressed the six member states of what was to become the EU and stated that European integration required a "mental revolution.” Never has this been more so now that the EU numbers 27 very disparate member states.
The EU desperately needs leaders who are capable of playing a collective game and thinking in European terms; no single member state can provide enough leadership to compensate for all the challenges we face. Today’s national leaders are most definitely not European leaders. An overwhelming majority of our politicians still think national, play national and use the European negotiating table to defend their national interests, often at the expense of wider European ones. Frequently narrow-minded, these are the politicians who pay lip service to the EU and its aims and ideas, yet refuse to give their support to all the necessary EU policy steps.
For different reasons at different points in the history of European integration, France has sometimes played a decisive role. From Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Jacques Delors, there have been many examples of strong French leaders, who have done much to advance the European cause. But that does not mean that the whole country was, or is, in favour of European integration. As recently as the previous French presidency of the EU, back in 2000, the country’s bickering political leaders on both the left and the right marred France’s presidency.
The political class in France has long been divided over Europe, with even pro-Europeans at times behaving ambiguously on EU issues. President Nicolas Sarkozy is a case in point; he took a real political risk during his election campaign when he decided to submit the revised institutional treaty to the National Assembly, and on becoming President he also helped the German presidency of the EU to build the compromise project that became the Lisbon treaty. But he also regularly attacks institutions like the European Central Bank and the European Commission, with EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson one of his favourite targets.
"The French political elite’s trust in the “puissance publique” – the power of the state – could prove a useful counter-weight to the sort of “pensée unique” that unfortunately still dominates thinking in Brussels"
Sarkozy continues to stress the need for a more determined and coherent Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), but at the same time he launched his “Mediterranean Union” despite the existence of the EU’s 10-year old Barcelona Process, while at the same time excluding all the EU’s northern countries including Germany. He also wants France to “be back in Europe”, but has failed to tackle the problem of France’s €50bn public deficit and the country’s poor performance on research and innovation. The limited impact so far of President Sarkozy’s structural reforms presents an obstacle to French leadership in Europe, because leadership is something that cannot be awarded but must be earned.
France nevertheless has a positive contribution to bring to the EU. Perhaps because of their “universal” vision of the world, the French are very sensitive to the issues surrounding globalisation. Long before the credit crunch and the current global economic downturn, France had begun to denounce abuses of the market economy and the distortions being created by uncontrolled capitals flows. French commentators and politicians also warned against increasing inequalities in our societies.
The French political elite’s trust in the “puissance publique” – the power of the state – could prove a useful counter-weight to the sort of “pensée unique” that unfortunately still dominates thinking in Brussels. The French would of course have more success if they were capable of bringing forward concrete solutions to Europe’s problems, or were able to point to better national results. French policymakers also have to contend with the uncomfortable reality that a large section of public opinion in France still rejects the market economy. It’s hard to claim the leadership of an EU that is based on a market economy and free trade when the political class still dreams of protectionism and even of proletarian revolution. Nicolas Sarkozy has himself been described in the Financial Times as a “liberal Colbertist” – a disciple of Louis XIV’s mercantilist finance minister – rather than a man of the free market.
For all this, France has much to offer the EU intellectually. On culture, given Europeans’ strong need to preserve their diversity in this increasingly globalised world, the French have a valuable message. At first sight, French efforts in favour of cultural diversity looked like another way to defend the French language. But even if national motives of that sort are still somewhere on the agenda, French intuition was right. Opinion polls show that many of Europe’s citizens, even English native-speakers, feel uncomfortable about threats to their national or regional identity. It’s generally unfair to blame the EU because it has done a lot – more than any other international body – to preserve local and cultural identities. Gaelic for example is now an official language of the EU.
But emotion, not logic, underlines Europe’s fears of fading cultural and linguistic identities. From Belgium to Lombardy and the Veneto, from Catalonia to Scotland, people seem quicker than before to defend their historical and cultural legacies. The financing of poorer regions by richer ones is also used by populist politicians to add spice to this simmering political stew. Culture and the recognition of its importance will play a vital role in any future discussions of what it means to be a citizen of the EU. The leaders of the EU and its institutions would be well advised to confront this reality if the EU is not to fall into the trap of endorsing a one-size-fits-all approach to Europe’s cultural problems.
In a nutshell then, France lacks the means to recapture on its own the intellectual leadership of Europe. Nor could and should any one country try to do so. But France can bring some of the intuitions and traditions that contributed to the shaping of Europe in the past. France can also continue to work with Germany, not in building a “directoire” as that would be unacceptable, but to resolve Franco-German differences and seek solutions that form the basis of EU-wide compromise. So long as Germany and France are both working with the European interest uppermost in mind, they will constitute the cornerstone of European integration.