The European Union has languished and become enfeebled — and we are all to blame. There is a noticeable paucity of ideas and methods. The whole system has capitulated and is at a standstill. Summits bringing together heads of state and of government have become a parody: getting together behind closed doors, repeating lofty principles, changing a word or two in a statement so that it sounds slightly different from the last one. The system is cut off from the world and from real life. What did the Breton farmers I have met in the past few months think? They did not say that they were against Europe, or against the Common Agricultural Policy that is so important to us. But they explained that they were against over-regulation, against over-zealous bureaucracy and against interventionist policies overseas, so far removed from their real needs.
The founders of Europe believed that political union would be a natural consequence of union in the economic domain, and that a European state could be created from a single market and a single currency. Half a century later, reality has dispelled that illusion. Political Europe has not happened. Any hope of it has been sorely diminished, and it is the fault of us all.
It was our own desire to weaken Europe. Heads of state and of government have done everything they can in the past few years to put in place a weak leadership to run the European Union. They decided to create a commission with 28 commissioners. This is not workable, and the organisation of the European Commission clearly needs to be changed if we want to go back to its efficiency and truly collegiate nature under Jacques Delors.
Gradually, the European Union has abandoned its vision in exchange for official procedures, confusing the aim — to unite Europe—with the technical, monetary, legal and institutional means for union to be achieved. And so this part of the vision was thwarted, as were others. Seeing Europe as the source of all our problems became a reflex, whereas questioning the role of the commission or its many directives was tantamount to being a bad European.
The European Union contributes to its own downfall when it fails to stand up for itself through an excess of conformism and a lack of vision. What can we say about the February 2016 agreement that offered the United Kingdom an ‘à la carte Europe’, yielding to its blackmail? For all these reasons, I believe that we have squandered the past decade.
Brexit is the name of this crisis and the symptom of the fatigue that is pervading Europe. However, let us hope—and, as reformers, hope is our role and our duty —that it is also the beginning of an indispensable transformation. Brexit is not a selfish act. Let us never denounce any citizen for having voted ‘badly’: it would be nonsensical. It would be easier to ‘dissolve the people’, as Bertolt Brecht said, than to face facts. I prefer the second alternative.
Brexit is the expression of a need for protection. It expresses a rejection of the very social model that British political leaders have defended. Protection from a society that advocated openness without concerning itself with the industrial, economic, and social destruction necessarily caused by such openness when it takes place too quickly.
Brexit expresses the weaknesses of a political class that found its scapegoat —Europe — and failed to explain that leaving Europe would lead to disaster. Protection from a public debate in which experts’ arrogance and demagogues’ lies were lumped together indiscriminately.
In this sense, Brexit is not a British crisis, but a European one. It should cause alarm bells to ring throughout the member states and it should be a wake-up call for all those who remain blinkered to the negative effects of globalisation. In fact, people fall into two almost equal camps: supporters of an open society, and those who advocate a closed society.
This rift has emerged from all the ballot boxes: the regional elections in Germany, the local elections in Italy, the Austrian presidential election, the Polish and Hungarian excesses, and, of course, here in France with the rise of the National Front.
So we have to go back to the drawing board with Europe — starting from its origins. How can the phoenix rise again? We need to rekindle a desire for Europe — a shared undertaking for peace, reconciliation and development. We need to build this new European venture around sovereignty, a taste for the future, and democracy.
I say that those who truly believe in sovereignty are pro-Europeans: Europe is our chance to recover full sovereignty. Sovereignty means a population freely exercising its collective choices on its territory. And having sovereignty means being able to act effectively.
Faced with the current serious challenges, it would simply be an illusion and a mistake, to propose rebuilding everything at the national level. Who can seriously believe that we alone can control migration flows from North Africa or the Middle East? That we can regulate, alone, the North American giants with their digital platforms? That we can meet global warming challenges alone? Or that, alone, we could negotiate balanced trade agreements with the United States or China?
The question of borders is a fundamental one today. It is clear that in the coming months we will need to broach the subject of cooperation with the United Kingdom on the subject of immigration. The current UK financial contribution will not suffice: France cannot bear the burden of refugee camps alone. Even beyond financial contributions, it is imperative that the United Kingdom accepts joint responsibility, along with the European Union, for managing the problem of refugees at the union’s borders.
Europe is the proper level of sovereignty protection for these matters. This fight for Europe is one of the most crucial for my presidency. In order to succeed we must convince our European partners right now. This is what I shall do, in close collaboration with Germany and Italy in particular.
The European Union remains entirely relevant. With its 27 members, it will remain a political and economic space — that of the single market and of overarching regulations. It will be the arena in which competition policy, trade policy with regard to the other great powers, the digital agenda and energy policy will be conducted, which may require specific regulation.
If we want to make progress on matters of defence and security, we must move much faster with respect to the Schengen Area, and be more ambitious in deploying border forces and coastguards. Together we need to establish our joint border policy, and to have an ambitious cooperation policy on intelligence and asylum.
The European Union must therefore continue to progress in its capacity to regulate and protect. Because it has the critical mass to do so. And this is in no way incompatible with the convergence needed within the Eurozone.
However, all of this will only happen if we place democracy in pole position. We must not allow our citizens or our ideas to be monopolised by rabble-rousers or extremists. We must not make Europe into a sort of crisis-management centre for a condominium that keeps trying to extend its bylaws because the neighbours don’t trust each other any more. We must not be waylaid by dogma that would prevent us from meeting the legitimate hopes and aspirations of our compatriots.
We need to take the time for discussion, and re-establish trust. It is a wide-ranging discussion. I propose the launch of democratic consultations throughout the European Union. In each member state, for a period of between six and ten months, this would involve a debate on the details of the union’s action, on the policies that it implements, and the priorities that it should have.
The results of these consultations would enable European governments to prepare a concise roadmap, with a small number of shared challenges and specific actions, tracing out priorities for the union’s action and an implementation schedule for the next five or ten years. Each state would then validate this ‘Plan for Europe’ according to its own democratic traditions. For countries organising a referendum, a coordinated campaign must be organised to generate democratic debate at European level.
In this way, Europe could once again achieve legitimacy, with democratic debate reinvigorated and citizens involved. This transformation will not happen overnight. It will take years. We need to think in the long term again, and have a vision for the future. But when things take a long time to do, it is even more urgent to start doing them.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator Australia for less – just $20 for 10 issues