A few weeks after the groundbreaking budget agreement adopted by the European Council on July 21, 2020, it would be tempting to say that COVID-19 changed everything in the European Union (EU), in line with the oft-repeated principle: “It takes a crisis for Europe to act.” Like all clichés, there is some truth in this statement.
The EU’s shared debt plan is the most important boost to European integration since the euro, and a step that would have been impossible without this crisis. This major progress owes, in large part, to a less obvious dynamic—the return of a golden triangle, which had not made such an impact since the early 1990s—the French-German partnership and an ambitious European Commission.
The EU must also address that citizens’ expectations regarding Europe have increased, which has long been underestimated. They criticize it less for interfering with national competences than for its failure to act on shared challenges. In the past, it was migration; now it is health, from the lack of harmonized quarantine measures to shared research on a vaccine. Nowadays, citizens expect Europe to take action, and criticize it when it does not act sufficiently, acts too late, or fails to act.
The COVID-19 crisis has also shown that the EU’s effectiveness seems linked to its competences: it is responsive in the economic sphere (suspension of budgetary rules or state aid, large-scale monetary support), largely powerless in coordinating border restrictions, and practically nonexistent in terms of the core health aspect of the crisis. And, although caution is required when evoking political fiction, it is worth noting that if the United Kingdom (UK) were still in the EU, the budget agreement and recovery plan would almost certainly have not been agreed to in their current forms.
These three aspects—the need for a shared European approach, citizens’ growing expectations, and the renewed relevance of the Franco-German engine—form the basis for a European project that must review its methods and its substance to embody a firm, responsive, and audible power in the stark world that the Europeans are rediscovering, like the Chinese emperor in Marguerite Yourcenar’s Oriental Tales, who angrily discovers that the real world is not like the ideal one in the magnificent works that his elderly painter Wang-Fô had described.
Emmanuel Macron’s European project
Let us start with President Emmanuel Macron’s European method. Not only does it reveal a lot about the substance, but it is also the most innovative development in European action by a French president since François Mitterrand. So far, this changed approach has not been widely commented upon or noticed. It is based on the permanent combination of three aspects.
The Franco-German foundation at the core
No surprises there then, one may say. True, but Emmanuel Macron has resisted the temptation of his predecessors to seek alternatives. EU history has taught that this temptation is bound to fail on two scores: no other partnership is as effective as the Franco-German one, and—once this deadlock has been observed—Germany’s trust in France, which had sought other partners, must be rebuilt. Although an ally, the UK could not take the place of Germany in light of Brexit, and the romantic dream of a Latin alliance was never a reality, so was never considered in Emmanuel Macron’s European policy.
President Macron’s true Franco-German innovation has been to reject both of the classic extremes of the Paris-Berlin relationship: confrontation or celebration. Confrontation is the permanent temptation of a French political class that blames Brussels or Berlin for the difficulties encountered, often confusing the problem with the cause of the problem—economic reforms, improving public finances, etc.
The idea of breaking with this trend is particularly prevalent on the left, and today the extreme left, and is all the more disappointing because it is merely rhetoric; once in power, the left cooperates with Germany and does not break with the trend. For a simple reason, there are three conditions for change in Europe: consistent proposals and the constant “European struggle”; engaging with Germany even, and especially, when there are major initial disagreements; and political and economic credibility domestically.
The other Franco-German pitfall, which is almost as harmful, is a type of permanent celebration. It is the diplomacy of photo opportunities, trying to copy Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl in Verdun. Still, this symbolism is essential, and President Macron has fully embraced it by supplementing the Élysée Treaty with the Aachen Treaty, and by commemorating the 1918 Armistice centenary with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Rethondes.
But images are never enough and do not replace what for six decades has been the irreplaceable strength of the Franco-German relationship: a working relationship, organized at all levels of political and administrative life, which derives its strength from the fact that the two countries often hold diverging positions, but can overcome them at key moments and enlist the support of the others—as with the euro or the recent shared-debt agreement.
Hiding differences would mean rendering the Franco-German partnership powerless, and Europe unable to act. This is why at each important moment, Emmanuel Macron’s France has openly recognized its initial differences with Germany: on Eurozone reform, on the 2050 carbon-neutrality goal, on the Nord Stream II energy project, and in spring 2020 on the need for European solidarity. While not everything was a success, the benefit of this action was the subsequent ability to work on overcoming challenges and on agreements.
In this context, look back at the recovery plan. At the end of March, a letter was publicly signed by nine countries, including France that called for shared European debt. This was in conflict with Germany’s position at the time. Before the German presidency of the EU, France negotiated with Germany to overcome this disagreement. On May 18, the pair released an agreement on a shared recovery initiative, which was followed by the European Commission proposal of May 27 that expanded on the Franco-German ambition. On July 21, the twenty-seven member states agreed on the recovery plan.
Franco-German efficiency is based on two other factors, which are often neglected in the centralized French model. To secure German agreement, patience and consistency are required. The Franco-German agreement of May 18 was the fruit not of three weeks of negotiations but three years of work, technical and political exchanges, and trust built up between Chancellor Merkel and President Macron.
To convince Germany, it is not enough to focus solely on Berlin and the chancellor; talks must be held with all parties, meetings held with the ministers president of the Länder and coalition partners, and discussions with trade unions and professional organizations, the public, and media outlets. Emmanuel Macron built this network for his European project, from his time at the Ministry of the Economy, and he understood that the model of the Fifth Republic does not apply to Germany.
“Talk to everyone”
This phrase does not only apply to Germany. The approach was applied from 2017 to all France’s EU partners, as the Franco-German base is always necessary but never enough. Isn’t this obvious? It should be. But, France was in denial about a twenty-seven-member EU. While rightly highlighting the serious flaws of an EU that was ill-designed for its size and heterogeneity, the French leaders acted as though they were still dealing with a six- or twelve-member EU.
Denying reality does not change it. This is why President Macron began wide-ranging bilateral work, particularly with the countries holding positions furthest from its own: ten meetings since 2017 with the Dutch prime minister, a tour of Eastern Europe from summer 2017—without which reform for posted workers would never have been secured—in the northern countries the following summer, more than twenty bilateral visits in total, and Macron participated in or reactivated multiple cooperation formats, from the Austerlitz group to that of the Mediterranean countries.
This extension is the condition for an efficient Franco-German engine, in which France is influential because it has other allies, from different regions and political parties, and of different sizes. Without these prior efforts, Germany would not have shared France’s position on the May 2020 recovery plan, and unanimity would not have been reached on the recovery plan only two months later. This wide-ranging European network will still be essential to meet future challenges, including strengthening climate commitments, unity and firmness with the United Kingdom to implement Brexit, and defining a European migration policy.
Shaping European institutions is the final piece of the puzzle
Here again, French reinvestment was essential. When he arrived in power, Macron had not been involved in the European Commission’s appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker. No representative from his political party at the European Parliament could put forward French positions, and the existing delegations were weak in number in their parliamentary groups. France traditionally tends to think that action taken by a French commissioner or an appeal to the president of the commission can settle any national issue. Neglecting to recognize the complexity of a fragmented political system—between a college with twenty-seven commissioners, a European Parliament that plays much more than the bit part that is still perceived in Paris, and undervalued but influential European political parties—can only dramatically reduce France’s influence and ideas.
Preparing European elections and the institutional renewal in 2019 were, thus, central in the president of the French Republic’s mindset. First, this meant preventing all political families from supporting the misguided principle of the Spitzenkandidat (how can a shared candidate be supported without a shared European list?); highlighting the importance of this election, which enabled a turnout that had not been seen since 1994, with a “Renaissance” delegation to support the presidential project that represents the strongest force in a new core political group that is essential to the new European Commission.
Also, this meant being involved mainly in choosing key positions: unprecedented Franco-German success with the appointment of a Francophile German as head of the commission and a French woman who is highly respected in Germany as the head of the European Central Bank, a duo which is supplemented by a French-speaking president of the European Council from Emmanuel Macron’s political party and a Spanish high representative for foreign affairs and security policy with similar concerns to those of France regarding the Mediterranean and Africa. Without this fundamental institutional framework, the economic reaction to the COVID-19 crisis from a budgetary and monetary standpoint would, it must be repeated, have remained a French pipe dream.
A strategy for change
Entering into European cooperation is a strategy for change, and not a desire to maintain the status quo. This is why, for three years, France’s European action has combined daily cooperation and regular questioning. The Sorbonne speech in September 2017, the speech delivered in front of Chancellor Merkel at Aachen in May 2018, the letter to Europeans in March 2019, and Emmanuel Macron’s Economist interview in November of the same year all contain concrete proposals for not sticking to a visionary or platform speech, and aim to open Europeans’ eyes to the need for a powerful Europe that makes no apology for existing and knows that its fate cannot, and must not, be decided by outside powers.
This approach expresses precisely the European project defended since Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 presidential campaign. As a candidate, Macron wrote, “The true sovereignists are the Pro-Europeans.”1 This conveys two fundamental convictions: Europe is not the dilution of, but the condition for, French sovereignty in today’s world; and if it does not live up to this promise today, it can be reformed.
In other words: France will not choose between a weak Europe and national withdrawal, because France can change Europe. This European reform cannot be solved through classic concepts of Europeanism and federalism, which are as unstable as they are vague; today, nobody can define them, except a few enthusiastic radicals or accusers. This reformism is, in essence, the best illustration of the policies of Charles de Gaulle and Mitterrand upheld by Emmanuel Macron. It is based on three convictions: independence, power, and identity.
Independence, power, and identity
The first conviction is that French independence in the world must have a European dimension. This was the obsession of both de Gaulle and Mitterrand, based on the memory of 1940: the diplomatic, military, economic, scientific, and moral tools of independence are the most important prerequisites for protecting France from a new collapse. It is for this reason that de Gaulle—despite saying he would “tear up” the 1957 Treaty of Rome if he returned to power—remained faithful to his pragmatic approach to greatness. In the end, he preserved and supported the Treaty, as it helped modernize French industry through controlled competition and an extended market.
He skillfully offset this concession by implementing the Common Agricultural Policy to simultaneously support the two sectors of the post-war economic transformation. The same approach led Mitterrand and Jacques Delors to advocate the creation of a single market in the 1980s, along with a solidarity policy for the poorest regions. Like de Gaulle, Mitterrand viewed the European framework as the only way to rehabilitate German partners without humiliation or naivety, to increase their power, which was necessary for France, while at the same time containing it, which was just as necessary. European construction and French interests naturally overlapped, and this model remains in place.
Today, this strengthening of France through Europe has taken on a worldwide dimension. How can strategic industrial sectors, from the electric battery to essential medicines, be developed through national self-sufficiency rather than European autonomy? How can the trade agreements governing globalization be achieved by a single country? The United Kingdom is sadly learning that it is not so easy. It would be just as naive to believe that nation states are powerless as it is to believe that the European project serves no purpose.
After all, Singapore, Israel, and South Korea enjoy remarkable success in the global family of nations. But, this would overlook the fact that they are hugely open and dependent on the outside world, both economically and geopolitically. It is, thus, paradoxical to support the argument for a sovereign France by pointing to countries that could not survive without an open global market and existential strategic protection (usually from the United States). Since de Gaulle, there has been complementarity between national tools (e.g., nuclear deterrence, permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council) and European tools (e.g., expanded market, unified trade policy, single currency), which guarantee the same independence.
While independence is aimed at providing protection against the risks inside Europe just as much as those outside, via cooperation within the EU, power relates to external projection. More than any other European country, France wants to have a global impact, both for its own interests and out of conviction. Since 1950, France has seen Europe as a lever for power. France’s disappointment with Europe stems from this “in-between” state: France alone cannot exert power at a continental level, but the EU has not yet taken on this responsibility, as French citizens had hoped. Nonetheless, the six aspects of contemporary power set out by President Macron in his Sorbonne speech require European ambition: security and defense, migration and borders, ecological transition, digital transformation, food sovereignty, and economic and industrial power.
Finally, no more than the notion of sovereignty, the concept of identity must not be the preserve just of anti-Europeans. Emmanuel Macron has not rediscovered these themes in the light of the COVID-19 crisis; both of them were at the core of his first comprehensive European speech in Lyon in September 2016. Because Europe was not created in 1950, it is not a technocratic invention or a simple rational construction. It is culture, history, diversity, and identity. Asking about France’s European destiny makes little sense in this regard: who can claim, from the Roman Empire to the Industrial Revolution, that the country is a peninsula isolated from the continent? For better or worse, France’s story is intrinsically European.
The European model is precisely about seeking the always-unstable balance between openness to others and self-protection: Europe invented treaties and borders, markets and rules. Balance is the very definition of this unique model in the world: an equal combination of individual liberty and group solidarity, of cultural unity and local diversity. After all, Stockholm and Naples have more in common than Berlin and Beijing (or Moscow, or Washington DC). Today, this identity is becoming enriched with a similar sensitivity to climate change or the implications of the digital revolution (e.g., as regards taxation or protecting private data).
These factors—independence, power, and identity—come together in the notion of European sovereignty, which is sometimes misunderstood by EU partners but is increasingly mentioned. Sovereignty is, in essence, the ability to defend or uphold one’s interests and values, which Europe does not yet dare to do or consider without a sense of modesty linked to its colonial legacy, the collapse brought about by world wars, and its totalitarian experiences. However, the “geopolitical” Europe sought by Ursula von der Leyen in particular is the real issue in the decade ahead: existing on the map or being subject to the law of others.
What are the observations about Europe in 2020?
The power/cooperation dialectic
Europe in 2020 has flaws that should be corrected. In the author’s view, the priority is reconciling power and cooperation. Within the past two centuries, Europe has never managed to combine them. Say—and historians must forgive this simplification—that Europe has gone through two phases: power without cooperation (economic and industrial), then colonial domination, which became so clear in the nineteenth century that European countries, far from getting along, were competing for continental and global hegemony. This hugely dominant period drew to a close with World War I, and definitively ended with World War II, which marked the peak and the end of the European civil war.
This led to a radically different phase. Disillusioned with power, Europe changed tack both willingly and out of obligation, and began cooperation without power. The European project was born of this traumatic experience. In 1950, the enthusiasm of some brilliantly lucid minds enabled a European cooperation project to be built out of the ruins of war. This project was a process of reconciliation, which in itself was already huge. It focused solely on Europe, whose wounds it wanted to heal, and not on the vast outside world, with which Europe could not and no longer wanted to deal. Everything focused inward, with closer Franco-German relations, creating a market to encourage peace, and uniting through rules and laws peoples who had killed each other using unspeakable violence.
External power, including defense and security, was not a matter for the European communities. This power had to be delegated to the United States and NATO during a Cold War in which political Europe was firmly positioned (and reduced) toward the West, and any remaining European power went to the state, which remained the strict framework for reduced power. For France, the only major continental country recognized in the post-war world order, Europe indeed represents reconciliation, but also a means of achieving power; it is from there that the founding ambiguity was created, which today could finally be overcome.
All European challenges are now external, and the growing expectations from citizens, not only from France, relate to Europe’s relationship with the world: migration, protecting borders, security and defense (including against terrorists), climate change, digital upheavals, the globalization of trade, etc. As relations between actors demonstrate, Europe is no longer in the shadows of, or protected by, the American security goodwill that it once took for granted. It cannot allow its growing dependence on China, and Europe itself must face the unruly empires of Russia and Turkey on its doorstep. Europeans know that they must once again speak the language of power, without losing sight of the grammar of cooperation. They are dizzy in the knowledge that they must take a leap.
A place devoid of power?
The second flaw, which is a consequence of the first, is the power vacuum; no place or moment embodies the EU’s power to act. Giving up power, which is broadened by the parallel desire not to provoke state structures, is embodied in the European lexicon put in place from the 1950s. “High authority” to avoid saying “government,” “commissioner” to avoid using “minister,” “college” so as not to have a “leader,” “directive” or “regulation” (for co-ownership?) so as not to utter the sacred term “law”…the examples could fill a book.2 The very architecture of the European institution buildings demonstrates an aversion to power and the representation thereof.
Remedies were called for as Europe increasingly dealt with and worried about the world around it. The first center of power was thus set up via the European Council in 1974. Then, the European elections, with direct universal suffrage from 1979, aimed to lend a much-needed democratic dimension to a Europe with an expanding budget and competences. From the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s until the wall of the European Constitution, treaty change became the means for the controlled expansion of European power. This process underscores the intrinsically legal nature of Europe’s construction.
This same logic led the EU to appoint many presidents. Ten years ago, the presidency of the European Council, the Eurogroup for the Eurozone, and a high representative for common foreign and security policy were added to the presidency of the European Commission and European Parliament. But, this was not enough. The European Council mainly manages crises with no long-term role, and the multitude of positions is a paradoxical admission of the difficulty of embodying a strong power. As Henry Kissinger might say, Europe nowadays has several telephone numbers, but no direct line. This increase in partners is more difficult to accept for French citizens steeped in the Fifth Republic than for any other European.
Neither does Europe have a key moment, like France with its presidential election, or the other European countries with their parliamentary elections, which set out a four- or five-year program of action. European elections are one aspect of this, but, in truth, they cannot set out a clear shared path due to the very nature of the European system: no shared transnational list, public unfamiliarity with European political parties, and no direct link with the choice of a European executive. From a more structural standpoint, the European systems consists of a diversity of languages, political cultures, and apprehension about European issues with no forum for shared discussion. Nevertheless, the huge increase in turnout at the 2019 elections shows that Europe can draw public interest when the issues are more clearly understood, such as climate change and increased nationalism.
Thus, citizens are not doomed to a lack of interest in European policies. The power vacuum can be filled, provided that state systems are not copied; the EU was never intended to become a new state. A truly European solution would be to create a “president of presidents” to the many people representing Europe. In reality, leaders can take action beyond their rank when the circumstances require. Angela Merkel took up a leadership of reason during the crisis, but stopped short of embodying visionary leadership once the storm had abated. Emmanuel Macron has taken on this role, with some inevitable friction, since 2017.
The existence of more ambitious policies, where necessary, will naturally reveal leaders, and could empower them in greater number. Innovation will be needed to find a suitable European forum, in the right place and moment for policy direction. Diplomatic conferences are no longer a sufficient and accepted framework for changing the course of Europe. The debates over enlargement and democratization during the 2001-2003 convention was a useful exercise, but is not viable in the future due to the failure of the 2005 referendums. There must be other ideas, which meet the contemporary need for open deliberations; this is the goal of the Conference on the Future of Europe proposed by France.
The European passion for enlargement
This passion derives, first and foremost, from the fact that enlargement drives enlargement. Each newcomer has its own neighborhood and area of influence, which it considers to be the next border to overcome, with no country wanting to be on the very edge of the empire. Europe has been centered on itself from the outset. It does not consider its relationship with the outside world in terms of borders, which are an essential interface for cooperation and a source of tensions. It sees itself as an area of prosperity that should be expanded. In the beginning, the European community had no foreign policy. Apart from trade agreements, which the EU was slow to see as tools for influence and pressure to further its interests and values, Europe has two main instruments: money and the (single) market, which can be expanded without great difficulty. There is also a deeper dimension. For the so-called “Eastern countries,” which today account for half of the EU’s members, and for the Balkan countries knocking on its door, political Europe has represented hope for freedom, peace, and prosperity from which history arbitrarily and unjustly excluded them. For them, they are owed something in reparation, which would be selfish to refuse.
France has always been wary about enlargement, which it intuitively sees as an obstacle to political union, and British enthusiasm legitimately added to this reluctance. This is a French failure; since François Mitterrand, France has rightly warned about the risks of rapid expansion not accompanied by ambitious institutional reforms, leading in practice to adjustments and accumulations (such as the principle of one commissioner per country), apart from the salutary ebb of decisions subject to unanimity. But, it has failed to explain the valid reasons for its concerns, or to propose a credible alternative. Worse still, it has deepened the gap, ignoring newcomers instead of making them precious allies. A useful step was taken in early 2020 at France’s initiative, with the toughening of accession negotiations. But, the EU already struggles to achieve its new ambitions in the current conditions, with twenty-seven members. And, as it now needs to consider its relations with the outside world, it also needs clear borders. It is essential for Europeans, and not only the French, to have a sense of belonging to a political community, and of the protection it can provide.
Overcoming the failings of the political project’s construction, there is ultimately a bedded-in European imagination, built on a paradoxical two-fold sentiment. On the one hand, there is a rather depressing fear of decline. Nobody has described it better than George Steiner: Europeans’ street names demonstrate their obsession with the glories and wounds of the past, whereas the Americans think like Henry Ford that “history is bunk.”3 On the other, there is a comfortable sense of living in peace in a protective bubble, with a certain idea of the “end of history.” Both sentiments together have a name: the discreet charm of decadence. Each period in which Europe has wallowed in that charm has brought its ruin. It needs to rediscover the sense of the world and a taste for the future.
Rediscover the sense of the world and a taste for the future
Conceived as an internal project for reconciliation, political Europe now needs four attributes essential for any durable, assertive political community: borders, suitable institutions, a power agenda, and a sense of belonging.
Focused on its political and economic reconstruction, and effectively delimited by the Cold War, Europe has never had to address the issue of borders. Three things have now made the question essential: the size Europe has reached, making its work cumbersome; the growing tensions with Turkey; and the migratory crisis, which has shown that border management cannot be a trifling competence of the EU.
Defining borders does not mean closing a society, but rather organizing its relationship with the outside world. That is precisely what the Europeans need. For the EU, it is also essential for a robust foreign policy, separate from an enlargement policy. It is therefore important to say, as President Macron did at the Sorbonne, that enlargement to the Western Balkans is a last step; the EU’s extension must stop there. And, it must still be stated that this enlargement is not guaranteed. That is why the negotiating approach was reformed at France’s instigation, for the countries beginning discussions (North Macedonia and Albania) and for those already in talks that have agreed to this new approach (Serbia and Montenegro). It makes the process reversible, with political control that is a far cry from today’s automaticity. More importantly still, this enlargement must be strictly conditional on a reform of the EU’s modus operandi, as borders and institutions go together.
What relationship should be built with France’s major neighbors? The question begins with Turkey, which has been in a process of negotiation since 1963. It must be said that it was then based both on a profoundly different project that was far less integrated, and on a convenient hypocrisy on both sides: the Europeans never dared to break off negotiations, afraid of ending dialogue, regularly reactivated when they needed Ankara, while the Turks have recently found an effective nationalist outlet in Europe’s hesitations. Europe needs to be clear, and work on another partnership—not EU accession. Emmanuel Macron said that clearly during the Turkish president’s visit to Paris in January 2018. This partnership—a word that could change, as it is sometimes seen as wounding Turkey’s pride—concerns the economy, energy, migration, and culture, but can only progress if the current provocations in the Eastern Mediterranean cease.
Is this a model that could be replicated for other neighbors? Like any great power, France needs tailored agreements with its neighbors. It can use existing frameworks for some of them, such as the Eastern Partnership with Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova; and a Mediterranean partnership in the south, still inadequate despite the French efforts by Nicolas Sarkozy that Emmanuel Macron renewed. Russia is the source of a whole other difficulty, but refusing dialogue would make France powerless. That is what is behind the initiative launched by the president in August 2019. This initiative caused considerable turmoil in the east of the EU, where France is sometimes seen as pro-Russian. But, there is no naivety in this initiative. For example, France has never questioned common European sanctions against Russia. Nor does any prominent French politician know better than Emmanuel Macron what cyberattacks and disinformation can do. Moreover, France has worked to strengthen the European rules applicable to the Nord Stream II gas project, which could increase its energy dependence on Russia. If France were to start out again, no doubt it would reverse the order of matters: first debating collectively at the European Council, visiting Poland and the Baltic States, and then initiating new dialogue with Moscow.
The main unknown in this border equation is obviously the United Kingdom. The negotiation of the future relationship is currently deadlocked and demonstrates the relevance of the parameters mentioned—France cannot consider its neighborhood in terms of mere enlargement (as the UK is “unenlarging” Europe)—and needs ad hoc partnerships. Still more, it raises the fundamental issue of borders; in a political community, the inside and the outside are not identical. That is why France is firmly—not punitively, but forcefully—defending the principle that the United Kingdom cannot have the best of both worlds: free access to the French market without complete compliance with its rules. Otherwise, it will be easy for nationalists to present the EU as an empty shell or a cow to be milked. But, it would be paradoxical to talk with Moscow, strengthen ties with Kyiv, and negotiate with Belgrade while ignoring what France has in common with the United Kingdom. If France manages to balance market access with adherence to fair competition rules, and to add a security partnership, it will have designed a new neighborhood and influence model for Europe. Ultimately, the sum of regulated access to the single market and membership of the Council of Europe would sketch out a European framework for economic and political cooperation that would be useful for the future and reproducible, with adjustments, for other close countries.
A unique institutional framework and differentiated formats
A political project needs borders, but also leadership. Europe cannot be accused of lacking interest for institutions; they are its passion. Debates on treaties and “circles” have punctuated Brussels life for seventy years. But, the challenge is to reexamine the subject pragmatically, with a simple approach—a unique institutional framework and differentiated formats.
The idea regularly comes up in Germany, and even more so in France: defining “clubs” or “circles” of European countries, with a form of nostalgia for a smaller, more homogeneous Europe. A “core” group—perhaps the circle of the six founding members, or the twelve of the Delors era—would embody the European spirit and original ambitions. But, that Europe is a thing of the past. Can France achieve the fiscal harmonization it needs with the Netherlands and Luxembourg? Is France not closer, in this respect, to Warsaw than to Dublin? Historical formats and east-west or north-south divides do not sum up the EU. That is its chance, and its condition for survival, for if two or three clubs disagree on all subjects, they will soon fall apart.
In a twenty-seven-member Europe, “project teams” are needed, depending on the subjects at hand. That means it is absolutely necessary to “talk to everybody.” That could just mean temporary alliances to further an idea. For example, in spring 2019, France brought together four, then nine, countries, initially without Germany before bringing it onboard, for the adoption of the goal of carbon neutrality in Europe by 2050. This differentiation can also involve more long-term cooperation, which has been seen throughout European history, from the Schengen Area to the euro and, today, to defense.
In what looks like a paradox, the condition for such differentiation without breakup is to maintain a single institutional framework: a single commission, a single council, a single parliament, a single court of justice and a single central bank. This framework could itself be more flexible to allow fair and effective differentiation. For example, the European Parliament could meet as a “Parliament of the Eurozone,” with just the members from the countries concerned, to vote on a specific budget for the countries sharing their currency. Similarly, the format of the council could evolve, depending on the subjects debated. Treaty change will be needed to organize such differentiated unity. In the meantime, pragmatic solutions, like that of the Eurogroup, make progress possible.
Two other institutional changes appear essential to enhancing the effectiveness of decision-making in a twenty-seven-member EU. First, reduce the size of the European Commission, as the current principle of a commissioner per country neither ensures the cohesion an atypical—and, therefore, fragile—executive needs, nor does it drive the European spirit that is essential to define a common interest, as each capital sees its commissioner as its spokesperson and its protector. Second, end unanimous decision-making in the fields that remain, such as taxation. It is only justified for subjects of a constitutional, or constitutive, nature, such as enlargement, treaty change, and, more debatably, the budget and its resources.
In practice, three Europes are forming within the EU, along the lines of major areas of cooperation. One is a Europe of values and the market, the foundation of the European communities from 1950. This is the twenty-seven-member EU, occasionally drawing in its neighbors based on the logic of partnerships mentioned earlier. It is joined—or will be joined—increasingly along the same borders, by the single market itself, the expanding Schengen Area (in reality, the logics of the single market and of free movement cannot be distinguished), and the Eurozone, which is expanding and covers an immense share of the post-Brexit European Union. Within it, a “defense and security Europe” is gradually taking shape, around the European Intervention Initiative launched in 2017 by the French president. It will need rethinking in light of Brexit, for this is the area in which the European anchoring of the United Kingdom is of crucial common strategic interest. That is the sense of the proposal by Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel for a European Security Council, as a coordination body involving London in the fields of foreign policy and security (shared positions and common sanctions, for example).
In other fields, such as industrial cooperation, pragmatic cooperation in ad hoc formats will prevail, supported (including financially) by the EU. For example, France and Germany launched an Important Project of Common European Interest (IPCEI) in the field of electric batteries, with the support of the European Commission and exceptions to state aid rules. Not all European cooperation should require its own treaty and its own institutions. Nor should all European projects have to wait for everyone to agree. Europe needs to rediscover a taste and desire for enterprise. Those who move forward will bring along those who wait; that is a well-established law in Europe. Institutions need to facilitate the European project, making it more adaptable, rather than seeking to embody it alone. Only one avant-garde pair remains necessary, ultimately, and must shoulder the responsibility: the Franco-German base.
That is precisely the spirit of the Conference on the Future of Europe, which should begin in autumn 2020 during the German EU presidency, and conclude in spring 2022 under the French presidency. As the EU lacks venues and forums of power, and as change by institutional forward momentum no longer works, time is needed to reflect on the essence of the policies and actions carried out. It should involve European and national institutions, but above all, citizens, through in-depth deliberative exercises, like the recent Citizen Convention for the Climate in France. This unprecedented exercise will be an opportunity to discuss issues never debated together across Europe at the same time: What migration policy? What food policy? What health policy? What trade policy? Some will doubt this exercise, as in any experiment of this type. It is a gamble, but from the European elections to climate marches, recent months have shown that Europeans want a common project and are very keen to engage. To enable this engagement, there is an essential prerequisite: states and European institutions need to commit to taking up a large part of the proposals produced by the conference as quickly as possible.
A power agenda
For Europe, the greatest novelty is developing a power agenda. This idea has spread rapidly in the last three years, spurred by French proposals, a gradual German aggiornamento, and tremors from the China-US clash. Fields of power, along the lines set out by Emmanuel Macron in September 2017, have been clearly identified. The COVID-19 crisis has brought more acute awareness, particularly when it comes to industrial independence and the protection of strategic economic sectors such as health. Three rarely raised points deserve some attention.
In accordance with a form of benevolent openness that has characterized its recent history, the EU has tended in recent years to act as an “honest broker” on the international stage, equidistant from the major players such as the United States and China. Paradoxically, that includes several Eastern European countries very committed to the transatlantic relationship, which in economic or technological matters refuse any confrontation with China. Yet, systematically choosing equidistance is not the approach of a power. Trade offers the best example: under the previous commission, as soon as Donald Trump took office, the EU should have sought to establish a shared agenda for World Trade Organization reform, recognizing that, while not sharing the same style and method, Brussels had the same analysis as Washington when it came to China’s aggressive anti-competitive attitude. The EU chose to avoid the subject, suffering both from the commercial rivalry with China and from US customs duties, while signing trade agreements with any other available partner (Canada, Vietnam, Mercosur, etc.). Conversely, the EU should not be ashamed to work closely with China on the climate, as the Americans have excluded themselves from the Paris Agreement. Choosing its battles and partners, while positioning itself in a clear conceptual framework (European autonomy, special relationship with the United States, cooperation of circumstance with other players) is the very essence of a power’s policy, always guided by the defense of its values and interests.
To begin, the EU must identify its strengths. Its principal asset remains its internal market: the world’s largest open market, home to four hundred and fifty million people. This is a lever of internal strength and external power, associated with the major integrated European policies, competition, and international trade. That is why strengthening the internal market, such as by unifying business law, bank and finance regulation, or rules on the major digital platforms, is not an obsolete, completed project, but rather a particularly topical one for growth and competitiveness.
The EU’s power, and even its survival, requires fundamental adaptations. First, the dumping within Europe, which undermines long-term acceptance by citizens, must be fought. This is the aim of the reform of the posted workers’ directive, which took effect on July 30, 2020 and needs to be accompanied by stringent enforcement to combat fraud and “letterbox” companies. It is also the imperative that drives the still-nascent fiscal convergence, particularly when it comes to corporate taxation and the digital sector. Second, the competition policy, conceived initially precisely as an internal regulation to provide a level playing field and stimulate innovation, is now unsuited to global competition with major foreign companies that are heavily subsidized or rely solely on strategic markets. Lastly, a new approach is essential in the trade field. This can be a powerful instrument to defend EU interests and promote European food, environment, and health standards, but current agreements—which do not require strict compliance with the Paris Agreement or the environmental clauses they contain—will soon be unacceptable to European citizens, and do not reflect the EU’s real importance in international trade.
A power challenge that is often ignored or disdained is that of demographics. By 2050, the EU is likely to be the only regional bloc with a smaller population than today. Is it an obsolete lever? Clearly not, as demographic decline, beyond the direct strength conferred by collective wealth generation, shuts societies into an almost inevitable withdrawal, deprived of the vibrancy of their young people and focused on a fear of suppression. Europe already bears these marks. Part of the success of nationalist and ultra-conservative movements in the east of the EU is based on the exodus of young people. Family policies are national, and should remain so, as long as they concern sensitive local models. But, as the French president highlighted in Krakow on February 5, 2020, the EU could provide financial support for demographic projects in member states, in strict compliance with its common values—particularly gender equality.
No political project and no community can remain or believe in its future without a sense of shared belonging. It is not a luxury or a Europhile whim, especially as the foundations of this common identity are firmly rooted in architecture, literature, languages, and landscapes. Ignoring this heritage, European integration has been cold, easily condemned by the detractors of a bureaucratic machine. No European was convinced by an economic demonstration of the euro’s benefits. Personally, the author was convinced by politics and history during a trip to Berlin a few weeks after the wall came down; Europe embodied hope. Others are convinced because of their family history, because they are border workers, because of literature, European funding for a project, or the general feeling that the world cannot reasonably be dominated by a condominium of the United States and China.
The Erasmus program could be expanded within the decade. Europe is working in that direction, though not as fast as it would like. As each country is seeking a new crucible for its young people, why not create a European Citizen Service? The fight for pluralist democracy and the rule of law is important in this regard, and part of Europeans’ shared identity. One idea pops up often, as it responds to the thirst for embodiment that walking the sad white or garishly colorful corridors of Brussels can only increase: putting famous places and faces on banknotes. The euro can’t only be about bridges and windows, as if Europe, again, had not enough great men and women to embody it. Europe is a continent that can only move forward when it is proud of its past. Belonging takes many forms. Here are just a few examples, but they are no mere trifles. This list will conclude with one last consideration: as citizens need, deep down, to be proud together to continue this adventure, Europe needs a great shared purpose. It still has the world’s most advanced space industry. Yet, when the Chinese and the Americans talk about another space conquest, the Europeans dare not. Instead, they should proclaim that the first man on Mars will be European. Ambitions and dreams are not the preserve of others.
France’s battle not to leave the notion of sovereignty to those who do not genuinely defend it, and to ensure Europe does not allow others to speak the language of power in its place, is bearing fruit. Through constant European engagement, first but not only Franco-German, as well as reforms that restore credibility, and unwavering support of Europe’s interests worldwide—as they are also those of France—Emmanuel Macron has produced results, at least under three criteria.
More than half of the proposals in his Sorbonne speech are being implemented, from European universities through to copyright protection, from posted work reform through to the Intelligence College in Europe (ICE), and from a European civil-protection force through to the European Intervention Initiative. Not all are visible; others are, but their European dimension is not. France needs to embody them, explain them, and amplify them. A few major changes among these proposals have been adopted, and are being implemented. Above all, the July 2020 budget agreement created joint European debt for the first time, to finance the recovery of European economies. A change is at hand in Europe’s approach. “Liberal” countries in Northern Europe, for example, are defending the protection of strategic sectors from foreign investment, and no state is refusing to respond to commercial attacks affecting the EU, even when they come from across the Atlantic. Germany is shouldering greater responsibilities in the fields of security and defense. There is no doubt as to the need for joint, firm action in the face of China. And, European unity in the Brexit negotiations has been a test of sovereignty that countries are clearly passing together.
Europe has survived a decade of crises, and has understood the inevitability of transforming from an area into a power. The aim is certainly not to create a “super state” or to deny national differences. On the contrary, it will find its strength and leadership in asserting its differentiation.When France holds the reins of European assistance in Lebanon, that is quite normal, and when Spain sets the pace on the crisis in Venezuela, that is a chance for Europe to assert itself. It will find the strength to project its influence again in this original model, so long as it rebuilds its own magic square of clear borders, effective institutions, a power agenda, and a sense of belonging. And, it will need what provides the “zest” of any power: the knowledge that it will last. It is this lasting vision that the Conference on the Future of Europe now needs to open.
Clément Beaune is French Minister of State for European Affairs.