France’s malaise is teaching Europe a lesson

Financial Times 

17 mai 2005

The outcome of the French referendum on the European Union’s constitutional treaty is open. More than 20 opinion polls have put the No-voters ahead. Many people are still undecided. Domestic politics are playing an important role. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Souvenirs described a similar crisis in January 1848, just before King Louis-Philippe was overthrown because his government was weak, mistrusted and unable to tackle social issues.

Today, many French people want to get rid of Jacques Chirac, the president. Eighty-two per cent of them elected him as the only alternative to the right-wing candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in the run-off for the presidency. They do not want to vote for him again. Unfortunately, the French do not take the consequences of the vote on Europe seriously enough. Very few No-voters are against the EU. They do not want to leave the Union; rather they aspire, in a revolutionary spirit, to change it. After a No vote, everything will be better. Even the supporters of national sovereignty do not dare to reject Europe.

But it is the impact of enlargement on domestic French policy and on the EU itself that is fuelling French people’s discontent. Some worry about délocalisation – outsourcing – social dumping and unfair competition, and denounce the consequences of the last wave of enlargement. Others fear the next waves – Turkey and beyond – will make the birth of a politically coherent European entity impossible. Of course, after the cold war, enlargement was Europe’s duty. It was in its interest to spread stability. But adding more members without making sure that the citizens still support the EU would be a failure for all members, old and new.

One problem is that the accession criteria adopted at the Copenhagen summit of EU leaders in 1993 were not precise enough. First, they ignored the supranational character of the Union and the need to share sovereignty. Second, they evaded a decision on the type of society Europeans wanted – in particular, the question of how to keep some social solidarity within the framework of market economy. This should have been a political issue before enlargement took place.

Member states and the European Commission have also circumvented the fourth criterion: the capacity to absorb new members while maintaining the momentum of European integration. Many French still want a strong, integrated Union. Logically, the constitution should have been adopted before any further enlargement. The man on the street cannot understand why the existing Treaty of Nice was considered good enough to open the door to new members but is not good enough once they have been ushered in. The Union of 25 members is a legal achievement. But it is not a human community yet. For many citizens, enlargement remains abstract or, worse, dangerous for their jobs and their welfare. Pro-Europeans fear the Union is losing its mission and its soul.

Perhaps because the French republic is the result of a 1,000-year process of enlargement within a centralised framework, EU enlargement has always been a more important issue in France than elsewhere in Europe. In January 1963, Charles de Gaulle famously refused the UK’s accession. Before the UK, Ireland and Denmark joined in 1973, a referendum was held in France. This was not the case for later phases of enlargement to include Finland, Sweden and Austria, or the 10 newest members. The quick, quiet ratification by the National Assembly in 2003 led to huge frustration.

The French were not involved in these important decisions. Likewise, it was not possible for the French parliament to debate Turkish membership before the EU leaders decided last December to open negotiations. Turkish accession is the straw breaking the French camel’s back and, according to polls, one of the main reasons why some French voters intend to reject the treaty. Whatever the outcome of the French vote, the Union should learn the lessons of the current malaise.

More democracy is needed in the enlargement process. Before Britain – in its capacity as president of the EU – opens negotiations with Turkey in October, European leaders need to understand that many European citizens do not share their strategic view and do not want to have a common border with Iraq. The worst outcome would be for the Union to pursue negotiations with Turkey, only to fail to win the support of EU citizens for Turkish membership. As the French referendum is proving, the EU can no longer regard enlargement as “business as usual”.

Sylvie Goulard