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The Euro-confusion in France
From The Economist, June 3rd, 2000
Innocent using by a well-intentioned intellectual? Or deliberate provocation by an impatient politician? Whatever the motives behind his speech on May 12th, Joschka Fischer, Germanys Green foreign minister, has stirred up quite a fuss in France, which on July 1st takes up the EUs six-month rotating presidency.
Speaking not as a minister but in a personal capacity, Mr Fischer had called for a European federation, complete with its own constitution, government and perhaps directly elected president. Even for French politicians, those are divisive ideas, especially for that majority who, when it comes to what ex-President George Bush once called the vision thing, would prefer to sit on the fence.
This weeks fence-sitter is President Jacques Chirac. In normal times, he likes to present himself as an enthusiast for Europe, not least to distance himself from centre-right rivals such as Philippe Séguin, a fellow member of the Gaullists Rally for the Republic, who has belatedly tempered much of his own scepticism, and Charles Pasqua, from the breakaway Rally for France, who is as Europhobic as ever.
But Mr Chirac is a Gaullist too, and so a defender of French sovereignty and the nation-state. In that regard, Mr Fischers proposals would push France to go too far, too fast for Mr Chiracs liking.
Which is why the president, in a speech on May 30th that was meant to be about European defence, brushed aside Mr Fischers federal idea as a dream for the distant future. Until the popular will exists for such a project, there is surely no point in wanting to define Europe in the abstract, he declared.
Quite so, at least for those who want to calm passions rather than to raise them. That, presumably, is the intention of Lionel Jospin, the Socialist prime minister and Mr Chiracs probable opponent in the 2002 presidential election. He has already been embarrassed by the reaction of his interior minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, to Mr Fischers speech. Within hours of a recent Franco-German summit, Mr Chevènement spoke of a Germany which had yet to recover from the derailment of Nazism, and which wanted to restore a sort of Germanic Holy Roman Empire.
Overlooking that gaffe, Mr Jospin simply says fuzzily that Europe is both a union of nations and a deepening of the nation.
Meanwhile, his minister for European affairs, Pierre Moscovici, says, with a no-less-fuzzy smoothness, that, though federalism is not the solution for Europe, nonetheless federalism or elements of federalism already exist in Europe, for example, the European Central Bank and the European Court of Justice.
This hardly clarifies matters. In short, it is unclear what exactly France wants from Europe right now, at a time when it is supposed to begin steering the debate.
The EU is committed to doubling its present membership of 15 within a decade or so, and France is meant to end its EU presidency in December with a new treaty in Nice outlining the institutional changes needed in order to carry out that expansion.
This means that at least some of the ideas raised by Mr Fischer - many of which can claim French parenthood from such figures as Valéry Giscard dEstaing, a former president, Edouard Balladur, a former prime minister, or Jacques Delors, a former head of the European Commission - will have to be discussed.
So far, Mr Jospins chief contribution, much resented by the European Central Bank, is to suggest that EU governments using the single currency should increase their political and economic co-operation. That idea is shared by his finance minister and rival, Laurent Fabius.
This week, in a speech coinciding with the 200th anniversary of the Bank of France, Mr Fabius was, in a way, as provocative as Mr Fischer. The single currency, he said, was a success that was making us less French, Italian, Spanish or German, but more European. Mischievously quoting Charles de Gaulle, who at the start of the 1960s had said of a European federation, Why not, but in 50 years? Mr Fabius pointed out that in 2007 the founding Treaty of Rome will be 50 years old. It would be a fine ambition for our generation to prepare by then, he went on, a federation of nation-states.
Will that be a step too far for French voters, who in 1992 approved the Maastricht treaty, leading to the single currency, by only the narrowest of margins? Not necessarily. Whatever the misgivings of Messrs Chirac or Jospin, an opinion poll last week claimed that 59% of the French are either entirely or reasonably favourable to Mr Fischers notion of federalism.