It's midnight, let's talk about this important topic: Europe

06 Apr 2017 - 14:50
Bron: Flickr

Europe is always the subject of a paradox in French presidential elections: candidates always want to change the European Union and say that it is fundamental, but they never really talk about it. This election is no different. However, it brings its lot of novelties. First of all it should be pointed out that it is the first time that none of the candidates want to prolong the work done by the incumbent President. Second, the European Union is in such a fragile situation with the rising disenchantment vis-à-vis Europe, Brexit, the difficult relations with Russia and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, that all candidates acknowledge this is a pivotal moment for the EU. Lastly, this election comes at a time of a slow way out of the economic crisis. These elements are essential to understand the context in which the candidates’ positions on Europe have been shaped.

Revamping the EU…..
All candidates, except Marine Le Pen, see an opportunity to revamp the European Union. And they all sense that France has a central role to play in this. As former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin recently wrote, “On Europe, there are not three positions, as we can sometimes read in the media: in favour of Europe, in favour of a different Europe, and against Europe. Those who are in favour of Europe today want a different Europe. No one is in favour of the current Europe.” In other words, candidates have been trying to come up with plans to reform the EU in their programme, perhaps more than in the past. It means that the differences are starker. It also stems from the fact that François Fillon for the conservative Les Républicains and Benoît Hamon for the Socialist Party were underdogs in their respective party’s primaries. In that sense, they do not necessarily reflect mainstream views on Europe.

The EU as a straightjacket for France
The other clear point of convergence of all the candidates, except Emmanuel Macron, is that they all want a reform or the withdrawal of the ‘posted workers’ directive. The rest varies quite clearly from one candidate to the other. It is important to point out that two major candidates do not rule out a French exit from the EU, i.e. Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Both disapprove of the road taken by the Union and want to reshape France’s relations with it. At the core of their positions lies the issue of sovereignty. They feel that the EU is a straightjacket, which curbs France’s capacity to thrive. Marine Le Pen would strive to renegotiate France’s relations with the EU, whereas Jean-Luc Mélenchon would initiate a profound treaty revision, which would go from terminating the European Central Bank’s independence to the authorisation of state aid. Both would put the outcome of the negotiations to an in-or-out referendum.

Creation of new institutions
The three other main candidates too want change in the EU, but for them a French withdrawal is off the table. In the tradition of the French approach to the EU, reform involves the creation of new institutions. Benoît Hamon’s first priority is to establish “a treaty for the democratisation of the Eurozone governance” with a chamber composed of national and European members of Parliament at its core. Although no mention is made of the role of the Council or the Commission, Hamon had strong words against it in public appearances. In the tradition of intergovernmentalism, François Fillon advocates the creation of a Eurozone political directorate composed of heads of state and government, which would meet every three months. It seems akin to the already existing Euro Area Summit. Additionally, he supports the creation of a general secretariat for the Eurozone, which would be autonomous from the Commission. François Fillon is explicit in his desire to see the Commission’s competences reduced to some ‘fundamental fields’, although he does not identify which ones. Emmanuel Macron is the most Europhile candidate but also the most prudent. He wants to create an Economic and Finance minister for the Eurozone – without specifying whether it would be the Economic and Monetary Commissioner or a new position – who would be in charge of a Eurozone budget – without specifying how it would be funded – under the supervision of a Eurozone Parliament composed of MEPs.

Treaty change
In essence, these three candidates would have to support treaty change at some stage, but none of them says it explicitly. This is abundantly clear for Benoît Hamon, who wants fiscal and social harmonisation as well as the mutualisation of ‘some sovereign debt’. It is plausible that Emmanuel Macron’s plan to launch national conventions across the EU, starting in 2018, would lead to treaty change but this is not spelt out in his programme. He hinted at this in April 2016 when he called for a ‘renewed treaty’ (traité refondateur) within two years.

Each candidate then has his/her specific emphasis. François Fillon makes it his priority number 1 to reform the Schengen agreements. Benoît Hamon wants to create a 1,000 billion euros investment programme for the ecological and economic transition – the environment is one of the cornerstones of his programme. Jean-Luc Mélenchon wants to end the austerity measures by withdrawing from the ‘fiscal compact’. Marine Le Pen supports economic patriotism so that national procurement tenders go to French companies ‘if the price differential is reasonable’.

Other topics are also addressed, which have been high on the agenda in France, such as strengthening European defence and reforming EU’s trade policy – lightly for some, massively for others.

Europe: a second-order issue
Overall, all the candidates acknowledge the EU needs to reform. They approach the issue from different political sensitivities and the differences, despite the lack of details in many programmes, are quite salient. Notwithstanding the importance of the subject and its pervasiveness in numerous other policy fields, it is disappointing to see how little time candidates spend discussing Europe. The various scandals have plagued the campaign and many topics have been shelved but it is also true to say that Europe remains a second-order issue, on which you do not gain many votes.

Vivien Pertusot is an Associate Researcher focusing on European affairs at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri) in Paris. He can be followed via his Twitter account @VPertusot.