(Commentary on “24 hours in question” TV show of August 22nd on LCI.)

It was with astonishment that I listened, on August 22nd on French TV, to four so-called specialists debating with unabashed chauvinism the outcome of President Macron’s European engagement which is likely to reflect his overall success or failure. This crucial dossier was considered mainly from the narrow perspective of its impact on the President’s popularity!

“Europe: France is playing for high stakes” would have been a far more appropriate title. Indeed, designating EU reform as the key challenge in his presidential program was both risky and worthy of admiration; it is the impact of his policies on France and the EU that is crucial rather than any incidence they may have on his personal future. He would probably be the first to agree with this assessment.

Notwithstanding, the panelistes spent most of their time enumerating the difficulties, insinuating that they constituted a quasi-impossible obstacle. Instead of insisting on the fact that “Europe creates an opportunity”, one discussant chose to declare that “Europe was a perpetual combat”, in reference to the recurrent difficulties of allowing the common good to prevail over “national interests”.

Though there appeared to be a consensus that failure to reform would open the way for “nationalists” to triumph at the next elections, this outcome was accepted without drawing any of its consequences though they constitute precisely the heart of the problem: when confronted with a choice during the recent presidential elections the French rejected 2 to 1, with great lucidity, the risk of leaving the Euro before heading for Frexit.

It is clearly not sufficient to acknowledge the existence of differences of opinion and interests that may legitimately exist in France and among its 26 partners; rather, it is necessary to underline the advantages of a compromise in which the citizen is a winner even if he does not get his way in every field.

It should be possible to explain the uncontroversial advantages represented by a common defence, a shared management of immigration, of the environment and climate change or the fight against terrorism as well as of the single currency. However, implementing these desirable objectives, the need for which is becoming daily more obvious in the light of geopolitical developments (Trump, China, Russia, North Korea, Terrorism, Migration, etc.), has its own inbuilt constraints:

– A common defence requires a common foreign policy.
– Shared management of immigration implies a unified control of the Union’s external borders to preserve the four freedoms of movement inherent to the Single Market.
– Climate does not recognize borders!
– A common discipline, needed for the EMU’s survival, is the necessary precondition for intra-Member solidarity (transfers).
– Mutualizing information and anti-terrorist capabilities is more efficient than autonomous national endeavors.
Those who pretend that public opinion is not prepared to endorse integration as their preferred (or rational) option show the lack of consideration in which they hold their compatriots. Indeed, evidence from the recent elections in Austria, the Netherlands and France together with the renewed popularity of the Union (in particular in the aftermath of the Brexit vote) are at significant variance with their position.

A further poorly developed theme in the debate concerned “leadership”: it was addressed primarily through the narrow prism of President Macron’s capacity to ensure the protection of French interests, in particular in relation to Germany. Though it is widely accepted that Union reform is conditional on the joint sponsorship of France and Germany, it would be inexorably condemned to failure if the future architecture of the Union were to prioritize “inter-governmentalism” through which the larger Member States seek to impose their will. The necessary leadership of the Macron-Merkel tandem should aim at promoting European citizenship by which the nationality of its future leaders is no longer a feature of their appointment but the result of a democratic political mandate at European level.

That is why I contest the opinion of the panelists who believe that the Chancellor’s consideration of the appointment of an EMU finance Minister constitutes a major concession to France because, once again, its interpretation was taken out of context. I have already expressed my own reservations, believing that the creation of such a position only makes sense within the framework of a broader “Eurozone government” in which Ministers (Commissioners with dual EU/EMU responsibilities) – acting under the authority of the Commission President and accountable to the European Parliament – were able to carry out collectively policies in total independence of their country of origin. Failing such safeguards, appointments would be subject to unhealthy horse-trading in which nationality would prevail over other considerations; in case of deadlock, compromises will focus on a weak and pliable candidate as has been the case in the past for some of the most senior appointments at Union level, weakening the institution’s ability to live up to the legitimate aspirations of its citizens.

In conclusion, President Macron appears to appreciate the magnitude of the challenge. His current visit to the East in search of a compromise in the delicate matter of “detached workers” is a good omen. Remains to be seen if the French will follow him down the path of a “European France” rather than demand a “French Europe” which is a totally utopian vision close to the heart of so many of his compatriots.

In conclusion, it is not President Macron but rather France, the EU and its 500 million citizens that are playing for high stakes when deciding Europe’s future.