France and Europe

, by Robert Toulemon

France and Europe

Since the very start of that great, historic undertaking that was and still is Europe’s construction, the relations between France and Europe have been ambiguous. Two Frenchmen, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, were the ones that started the process, but it was France too that, on several occasions, and not only in the time of General de Gaulle, turned down advancements that were possible then and are no longer so or more difficult today.

Most Frenchmen wish a Europe-power that should indeed be a bigger France. As they have no experience of federalism, they wish and at the same time fear a centralized European State. This schizophrenia has led French diplomacy to a contradiction consisting in wishing a strong Europe and refusing it the institutional and budgetary instruments without which it cannot but remain weak.

Being a federalist, I have never ceased to denounce that contradiction, which dates back to the Fourth Republic, but has been made more acute by General de Gaulle. I will show its consequences through a few episodes of a story that started in the middle of last century. I will then deal with the present crisis opened by the referendum of March 29, 2005.

A succession of progress and crises

The European construction, which is by far the most exceptional historical adventure in the history of nations, may be analyzed as a succession of progress and crises in which France has always played a great part. A promoter of progress but also the responsible of the difficulties that Europe always succeeded to overcome. I will consider six episodes of success followed by a crisis.

The first episode (1950-1954) is that stretching from the appeal launched by Schuman on May 9, 1950, to the rejection of the EDC by the French National Assembly on August 30, 1954. The proposal, inspired by Jean Monnet, to put the steel and coal industries under a supranational High Authority, marked the starting point of the French-German reconciliation and of the European community, after the deception of the Congress of The Hague in 1948. Adenauer, who was expecting this act of reconciliation, and the Belgian Spaak, disappointed by the impotence of the Council of Europe, whose Assembly he was presiding over, joined it immediately.

When the defence of Europe led the United States to claim the participation of German soldiers, Prime-Minister René Plevin, him too inspired by Monnet, thought that the solution could be found in the creation of an integrated European army (the European Defence Community). Adenauer was seeing in it a guarantee against the risk of a revival of German militarism. But in France a coalition of the extremes was formed, from the Communists to the Gaullists, splitting the Socialists and the Radicals. The EDC treaty was rejected without debate on August 30, 1954. President Pierre Mendès-France did not support its ratification. Thus, France rejected a project it had taken the initiative for. The consequence will be the opposite of what the EDC opponents wanted. Germany’s rearmament will take place in the framework of NATO.

The second episode on which I will dwell some more: from the restart of Messina to the crisis of the empty chair and to the Luxembourg compromise (1955-1966). Jean Monnet, after the setback of the EDC, created a Committee for the United States of Europe, a term recently taken up again by Belgium’s Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt. Gathered in June 1955 at Messina (Italy), the ministers of the Six decided to relaunch Europe on the less-emotional fields of the economy and nuclear energy. After hard negotiations whose success is greatly owed to Spaak, two treaties were signed in Rome fifty years ago, on March 27, 1957: the Common Market and Euratom.

The De Gaulle Era

De Gaulle fought those agreements with less virulence. Coming back to power six months after their entry into force, he decided to enforce them. The experts he consulted convinced him of the usefulness of the Common Market for the modernization of industry and agriculture. But he remained opposed to the supranational principle of making decisions by majority vote, and suspicious of the “Anglo-Saxons”.

Great Britain, having tried in vain to absorb the Common Market into a great free-exchange area, begins negotiations since 1961, in view of its adhesion. De Gaulle considered the United Kingdom as the Trojan horse of the United States. The signing of the Nassau agreements at the end of 1962, by which Kennedy commited himself to deliver him some Polaris missiles, increased the General’s suspicion and drove him to break the UK adhesion negotiations in January 1963. More than his position, it was the brutal manner of the breaking that was criticized. A few months before, a project of political union supported by de Gaulle and Adenauer had failed in the face of the opposition of the Dutch Luns and of Spaak. The two of them were accepting a federal union without Great Britain, but, fearing a Franco-German directoire, were considering the British presence in a Europe of the States as necessary. Such a refusal of a British-style Europe without Great Britain was disguising a deep-seated disagreement over the relations with the USA, that will show up a little later with France’s withdrawal from the NATO’s joint command and its leaving from American bases.

The early success of the Common Market, his triumphant visit to Germany in 1962, the signing of a friendship treaty between France and Germany in January 1963, a few days after the breaking of the negotiations with the UK, leave untouched the General’s hostility towards the supranational ideology that inspires the Commission presided over by Walter Hallstein. The latter was trying to obtain an extension of the Commission’s and European Parliament’s powers, in return for the financial rules of EU agriculture, an essential element of the Common Agricultural Policy that France was keen on. de Gaulle’s answer was the suspension of France’s participation in the Council of Ministers on June 30, 1965, (the “empty chair”), and the announcement in September of his refusal of decisions taken by a qualified majority. The compromise reached in Luxembourg on January 1966 will put an end to the crisis, but will leave durable after-effects: a paralyzing search for unanimity.

Pompidou succeeded de Gaulle in the spring of 1969. He removed the veto to the UK’s adhesion. The UK, Denmark and Ireland joined on January 1, 1973. The ensuing détente will be followed by a new crisis due to the Kippur War (September 1973) and to the oil blockade by the Arabs that was the consequence of it. Pompidou, being sick, let his minister Jobert refuse any solidarity in the name of France’s Arab policy. He tried to oppose the creation of an Agency for energy promoted by Kissinger with the agreement of the other Europeans.

This third episode (1969-1974) ends with the election of Giscard d’Estaing and the agreements of the end of 1974. Giscard obtained the creation of the European Council, institutionalizing the summits in line with the Fouchet Plan. In return, he accepted the election by universal suffrage of the European Parliament, which was a concession to federalism. But the situation in which the first election took place in the Spring of 1979 is another demonstration of French contradictions. Under the pressure of the Gaullist party led by Jacques Chirac, the government stressed not so much the importance of the election, as the limits of the Parliament’s powers.

The fourth episode (1981-1989) goes in the opposite direction: from the crisis to a step forward, from Premier Mitterrand’s willingness to break up to the achievements of the Delors’ era. Elected in 1981 with a program to break up, Mitterrand chooses a policy of rigour that allows France to remain in the European monetary system and to prepare for the single currency. This happy period is marked by the settlement of the budget controversy with Mrs. Thatcher’s UK, in Fontainebleau in 1984, the adhesion of Spain and Portugal on January 1, 1986, the doubling of the structural funds, and the Single Act of 1987, which established the date of 1992 for the single market. The Luxembourg compromise stays on, but the method of majority voting is at last admitted.

A fifth episode is the one that starts with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, and ends with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in February 1992. After having tried to postpone Germany’s reunification, Mitterrand obtains by Kohl the monetary Union, but renounces to get a compensation, that could have consisted in a political, social and fiscal union. Germany, in the euphoria of its freshly-found unity, would have accepted that at the time. A new contradiction which is at the root of the present crisis. At the same time, the historical, heavy ties that linked France and Great Britain to Serbia, and Germany to Croatia stand in the way of a common policy to face Yugoslavia’s break up. The political Europe missed then a chance for asserting itself, just when the United States was encouraging Europe to intervene.

France, because of its institutional hesitation, gained a Europe which is an area of exchanges with no real political ambition.

Sixth and last episode (1993-2000): France, due to institutional shyness, let enlargement take a preeminence over deepening. The adhesion of the three “neutral” countries takes place in ambiguity on January 1, 1995. A few months before, France had given no answer to a memorandum by Kohl’s two close aides (Schaüble and Lamers), proposing to set up within the Union a federal “hard core”. In 1997, the Amsterdam Treaty did not succeed to reform the institutions. Under the pressure of the Länder, Kohl refused to extend the majority-vote issues that, this time, France was suggesting. On the eve of the great enlargement that will see the adhesion of ten Central European and Mediterranean states, the Nice Summit is another flop.

Thus, France, because of its institutional hesitation, gained a Europe which is an area of exchanges with no real political ambition. The disappointment of the French people will drive it to reject the constitutional treaty, certainly inadequate, but constituting a first step towards a more ambitious Europe.

A crisis of a new type

The worst of French contradictions is the one that led a majority of Frenchmen to refuse to ratify, on May 29, 2005, a constitutional treaty drafted under the direction of a former President of the French Republic, a text full of imperfections, but representing a considerable progress in comparison with the situation left by the Nice Treaty. I will try to analyse as objectively as possible the causes of what I consider as a catastrophe for both France and Europe.

I do not mention here the decisions that led to the referendum, starting from the Laeken Declaration, whose merit is owed to the Belgian Prime Minister. That document, adopted in December 2001, one year after Nice, gave the mandate to a Convention composed not of diplomats, but of politicians, on the model of the one that had drafted the European Charter of fundamental rights, proclaimed in Nice, to make a proposal for a reform of European institutions. The Convention was in session from the end of February 2002 to June 2003. The text approved by consensus has been little modified by the Inter-Governmental Conference that followed. The fact that an agreement could be reached on a set of so diverse issues between political forces, then between governments has something of a miracle. It would have been another miracle if the already 25 member-States would have ratified it by unanimity. But nobody was expecting that the rejection would come from two founding States, France and The Netherlands. Let us see the causes of the French rejection, before asking ourselves how to get out of this crisis.

Among the causes of this disaster, I will distinguish between the key ones and the secondary. Let us start from the secondary ones: the length of the text, the difficulty of its understanding by ordinary citizens (that drew upon us the irony of the Spaniards, who, they say, had no difficulty to understand it), its omissions (the keeping of unanimity for taxation, resources, revisions), a badly planned and badly explained enlargement, the opposition to Turkey’s candidature. Contrary to what happened in The Netherlands, it does not seem that the concerns over the losing of sovereignty played a significant role in France.

The main cause, in my opinion, is the presence of a mass protest and even more the feeling, quite widespread in the popular classes, that Europe not only did not provide them any protection, but contributed to accelerate the competition of emerging countries, and to delocalize many factories.

The enlargement itself has been felt as a threat, even more so because it did not bring with it any social and fiscal harmonization.

That feeling has made it possible to pull together the discontent of two extreme currents of public opinion traditionally hostile to institutions, if not also to the European construction. Even worse, some federalists, disappointed by the text’s timidity, have added their voice to those of the traditional anti-Europeans. For that matter, Laurent Fabius’ stand was decisive, even though it did not bring him the domestic-policy advantages he was expecting.

Such coalition of the opposites saw in the referendum an occasion for a revolt against the elites in politics, the economy and the media. ATTAC got frantic. The Internet was used much more effectively by the supporters of the NO than by those of the YES. Some false truths were asserted without being belied, in particular the absurd statement that the euro was a factor in price increases, whilst the single currency is our only protection against devaluation, that, in the absence of the euro, the situation of our public finances would have imposed.

Finally, President Chirac, became very unpopular for having taken in no account the quite peculiar conditions of his election, he has always been pro-European by reason, surely not by heart. His performance in a meeting of youngsters ignoring everything about European facts was counterproductive.

How to get out of it?

We are faced with two impossibilities: make the French and Dutch people vote again on the same text, and submit a new text to the eighteen countries that have already ratified the Treaty. To escape such a contradiction, two solutions are proposed, both quite uncertain.

The first consists in adding to the Treaty some provisions allowing to answer the concerns of the Frenchmen, if not of the Dutch people, who have become Euro-sceptical; for example, an effective coordination of economic policies, a more generous care of the victims of delocalization, the acknowledgement of the principle of constant development, the creation of EU fiscal resources of its own, a softening of revision procedures. Some of these ideas that will not get the unanimity could be realized in the framework of the Eurogroup. This is the “Treaty plus” formula, that is favored by our closest partners.

The second is to negotiate a new treaty including some institutional reforms, as well as, in a form to be decided, the Charter of fundamental rights; but it shall be made less cumbersome by eliminating the provisions of Part III concerning the policies already present in existing treaties, and integrating, if possible, the improvements mentioned above. This formula, easier to present in France, is criticized by those who want to keep Part III, at least the new elements it contains.

A debate is under way in France between those who, like Nicolas Sarkozy, do not wish a new referendum, and those who, like Ségolène Royal, seem inclined to take the risk of calling one.

A meeting was held in Madrid, on January 27, on the initiative of Spain and Luxembourg, two countries that have ratified the constitutional treaty by referendum. It gathered the eighteen that have ratified it, which were joined by Ireland and Portugal, that declare themselves “friends of the Constitution”. The twenty have not put forward any proposal. They have declared that they are waiting to know which Europe do the French and the Dutchmen wish. The same question could be posed to the Britons, the Poles, the Czechs, the Danes and the Swedes, who remain in expectation.


I would like to conclude with a consideration on the nature of the European commitment. The European construction is certainly, in the first place, an undertaking of reason. It has been taken up by wise men, who were not able or did not try to mobilize the enthusiasm of the young and the public at large, except, maybe, Paul-Henri Spaak in Belgium. Governments, in particular in France and even more so in Great Britain, were not able to mobilize such an enthusiasm.

Recently, Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Jean-Claude Junker observed that it is not possible to speak ill of Europe every day of the week and ask the citizens to vote on Sunday for Europe. Well, an historic undertaking of such an importance cannot advance if it does not enjoy an affective, I would dare say passionate, commitment.

Its promise of peace through reconciliation, of progress through the market but also through solidarity, the example it offers to a world that is missing hope and governance, deserves and justifies such an affective commitment. It is in this spirit that I wrote last summer a short essay boldly titled “Loving Europe”. It has been published on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. May it succeed in convincing those for whom these pages will not be enough.

This article was originally published in the July 2007 edition of The Federalist Debate, Papers for Federalists in Europe and the World.

Image: European flag between two French ones, taken from Flickr

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