The Battle for Europe

An oddly uneasy handshake betrays how the two countries see the other

An oddly uneasy handshake betrays how the two countries see the other

In the first of two posts looking at the Hollande government foreign policy, we’ll take a look at the new approach to European policy that is becoming clear within the Socialist administration.  It is an approach that tries to distinguish itself from the contradictory policies of Nicolas Sarkozy, with its driving aspect being the fictitious personal proximity between him and the German Chancellor.  And yet it is an approach that is both unclear and confused, both in its goals and the means of achieving them.  This is perhaps fortuitous, because the immediate future of the EU is also unclear and confused.

Francois Hollande’s speech to the European parliament was, as the Economist pointed out with its usual skepticism, long on principles but short on actual concrete proposals.  Hollande seems, to some, to lack a clear view of what Europe needs to do in order to be able to achieve a number of goals that are obvious to the Continent.

Where are we going?

Those goals are fairly simple issues that have been knocking around European capitals for years, and all form parts of the Single Market – that largely bureaucratic but economically crucial component of the EU, created in 1957 but largely unknown to the wider public.  The idea of a banking union, with European-wide banking regulation, with additional regulation in the financial sector, building on the existing EU directives, form the cornerstone of EU “encroachment” into an area which benefits from the free movement of capital between member states, but has escaped proper regulation due to member states’ insistence that they retain control over the banking sector.

Whilst most member states understand the value of a “banking union”, even, to a certain extent, the UK, there is greater reticence about the logical next-steps, which would include tax harmonisation.  The European Commission has already been able to acquire new competencies to be able to comment on (although not intervene in) EU member states’ budgets thanks to the Lisbon Treaty of 2007, but member states have balked at creating an EU Finance Ministry which would have the ability to overrule errant member states.

Blurring the road ahead

Francois Hollande mapped out a vision of calculated imprecision in his speech to the European Parliament, and seemingly took an approach that lacked the newly-found German enthusiasm for EU federalism.  In France, there are few French politicians (the far left and far right being the outlyers) who believe that ultimately a federal state is not only Europe’s destiny but its interest as well.  Yet whilst the Germans seem now ready to voice this destiny (fearful in the past to doing so, lest their EU dominance be misinterpreted as history repeating itself), the French are more reticent.  This should not surprise historians of the Fourth Republic, who remember that hopes for a  European Defence Union and ultimately political union were destroyed, not by the UK, who wasn’t invited to that particular party, but a nationalistic 1950s France.

Hollande continues in the same vein – a kind of quasi-Federalism that is not quite ready to admit that it wants ultimately to secede large chunks of power to a centre in Brussels.  I say that not to criticise the goal – simply to make explicit what the result would be.  Seceding power to a centre is not morally inexcusable, but a political calculation as to the most effective place and level at which to take decisions.

Why is Hollande so opaque when Europe needs clarity?  Simply because Europe will leave in an uncertain environment until 2017.  And in common with many uncertain periods, the lack of clarity is entirely the responsibility (to not employ the word “fault”) of the British.  David Cameron’s announcement that he will hold (if he wins the next election in 2015) and in-or-out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU has thrown the EU into a period of uncertainty.  Those member states, such as Denmark or the Netherlands, who have been counting on the UK obstructing the more federalist-flavoured EU policies (of which there have not, it should be noted, been an enormous number), are concerned that if the UK were to leave, the Franco-German alliance would steamroll the rest of the Union.  On the other hand, both the Germans and the French are thinking of the progress they could make towards federalism if they go shot of the obstructionist UK.

For the first time in 50 years, politicians in France and Germany are talking openly of a European super-state.  For the first time in 40 years politicians in the UK are talking realistically of leaving the EU and dealing with the consequences.  In such uncertain terms, perhaps a speech that says little is not so much a lack of political courage, but a shrewd view of the current state of temporary uncertainty?

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