The European Treaty: why France wants to move quickly edit

June 30, 2007

The election of Nicolas Sarkozy as President of the French Republic has been widely regarded as the signal of a shift in France’s policy towards Europe. In a campaign where European issues were conspicuous by their absence, Mr Sarkozy was by far the clearest of all the principal candidates regarding his ideas for the EU. A quick fix was needed to overcome the stalemate created by the French and Dutch rejection of the draft constitutional treaty. Turkey, as an Asian country, had no justification to join the EU: instead, a type of “privileged partnership” had to be established to anchor this country to the Union. Having settled these two thorny issues, Europe should then focus on topics that matter most to ordinary citizens, such as how to create growth and jobs.

Significantly, one of the new President’s first trips abroad, after the ritual visit paid by all newly elected French Presidents to the German Chancellor, was to Brussels, where he held talks with President Jose Manuel Barroso and the Commission. This was a notable first in French politics: with this gesture, Mr Sarkozy indicated that “France was back in Europe”, as his aides put it. Why Europe was deemed to deserve so much attention may be explained by two different factors. First, France traditionally likes to consider itself as the natural leader of Europe. In classical accounts of the history of European construction, France is depicted as the country that , together with Germany, was most actively in favour of more integration.. Needless to say, this account omits important exceptions to the rule, during which France violently halted progress, such as the rejection of the European Defense Community or the ‘empty chair’ crisis triggered by de Gaulle in 1965. Despite this, however, the former vision has structured the behaviour of generations of Frenchmen, so much so that even large numbers of those who campaigned against the draft European Constitution made a point of explaining that theirs was a ‘Pro-European No’. For the pro-European elites, the result of the referendum was perceived as humiliating: France found itself in the back seat, condemned to react to others’ moves. Worse still, it discovered that, post-EU enlargement, it was left with rather few allies, as was revealed in 2003 when Europeans clashed about the prospect of a military offensive in Iraq. The decision to convene a meeting of the 18 countries that ratified the draft constitution in Madrid a few weeks ago was widely resented in Paris, and taken as a signal that action was needed to restore France’s credit in Europe. Secondly, on the domestic plane, Mr Sarkozy campaigned on a programme of ‘rupture’, aiming at modernizing the French economy. He is aware that it is most likely on these issues that his actions will be judged by voters, thus determining his ability to win a second term. But reforms are politically costly: the last thing he would desire is for this process to be hampered by decisions taken at the European level. France’s willingness to accept thorough reforms is unlikely to increase after one more divisive debate on the future of Europe. Hence the President’s eagerness to clear his desk of the European Treaty, the sooner, the better. In other words, it is because European issues are secondary that they must be treated urgently. How is this to be accomplished? In a speech delivered in Brussels in September 2006, Nicolas Sarkozy outlined the contours of a plan largely attributed to one his advisors, MEP Alain Lamassoure: a “simplified” treaty, reiterating most institutional provisions contained in Part I of the draft constitutional treaty, which had not been the object of much criticism during the referendum campaign. The text would be presented as a mere amendment of the Nice Treaty and all constitutional rhetoric would be banished in order to allow for a parliamentary ratification. This could later be followed by a more open negotiation on the longer term objectives of European Union. Although the feasibility of this plan was disputed, it is fair to say that it was one of the most astute proposals put forth to overcome the current stalemate. Furthermore, having announced his plan well ahead of the campaign and having received strong support from French voters, Mr. Sarkozy can legitimately claim to have the mandate to be able to carry it out. Even prior to the May election, this proposal has emerged as a possible intermediary between those countries that have already ratified the draft constitution and those that seem most opposed to any changes to the current Treaty. A questionnaire circulated by the German presidency of the EU has documented the emergence of a consensus on the principles to be included in the new treaty. These include a simpler system of decision-making by the Council of Ministers, an extension of decisions taken by qualified majority vote, including on some aspects of justice, immigration policy and the fight against organized crime, a consequential extension of the co-decision powers of the European Parliament, the replacement of the rotating presidency system with “Team Presidencies” bringing together three countries and a full-time president for the European Council, an enhanced status for the EU High Representative for foreign policy, although the title of ‘EU Foreign Minister’ is now contested. Even assuming an agreement may be reached on all of these points, a number of difficult issues would still remain, such as the Union’s legal personality or the status of the charter of fundamental rights, which was supposed to have been included in the constitutional treaty. Some, including Chancellor Merkel, have demanded a more explicit commitment to social cohesion and sustainable development. Others, such as the Netherlands or the Czech Republic, would like the subsidiarity principle to be given more strength. More generally, France’s proposal, most likely influenced by the debates that took place during the referendum campaign, seems to underestimate the conflict potential of the institutional chapter. Poland remains unconvinced by the proposed distribution of votes in the Council, and smaller countries are reluctant to give away ‘their’ commissioner. The Draft constitution was a package deal; reviving only parts of it threatens the overall balance of the compromise. The road to a final agreement is therefore ripe with difficulties. As is often the case in a complex negotiation, upholders of the status quo are in a privileged situation: they may object to any amendment until their concerns are met. Opposition to the “double majority” principle retained for votes in the Council of Ministers (55 percent of Member States representing at least 65 % of the EU population) might, for instance, result in a reduction of the number of areas in which a shift to voting is accepted. This, arguably, would be an ill-inspired move: votes mostly serve as a way to overcome a stalemate in the Council in case of persistent objections by one or two governments; in such a situation, the share of votes each country has is rarely of primary importance. Even if an agreement could be reached amongst governments, its ratification is anything but certain. Even before the 2005 referenda, ‘accidents’ had occurred at the time of earlier treaty reforms. How can one avoid a repetition of this scenario? The problem is particularly acute for those countries that have already ratified the draft Constitutional treaty: why go through another ratification process unless they are sure their partners will follow suit? On paper, there is one easy answer to that question: do away with unanimity and accept that a new treaty can come into force once ratified by a large majority of states but, needless to say, no government is contemplating this possibility at the present time. Finally, an important question remains: if the simplified treaty envisaged by Mr Sarkozy sees the light of the day, would it enable the EU to respond to the concerns voiced by those who voted ‘No’ in the 2005 referenda? Even in those countries where the treaty was ratified, the social categories that appeared most reluctant were the same: blue collar workers, youth, individuals with a low level of education. That is easily explained, as these categories feel threatened by the social and economic change under way in Europe. Would a treaty limited to institutional issues suffice to allay their fears? That is doubtful. Would it enable the Union to act in a more resolute manner to respond to their demand for more security? That is equally unlikely. The draft treaty was already a fairly conservative arrangement, and there is no chance that a new treaty will go any further. Even if a simplified treaty is eventually ratified, it will not solve Europe’s legitimacy deficit. But, as mentioned, that is not Mr Sarkozy’s problem: his priorities are elsewhere.