Commentry on Pierre Defraigne’ article in “La Libre Belgique”

As is often the case, I share much of Pierre Defraigne’ analysis; nevertheless, reading this article leaves me somewhat dubious. Indeed, if the usual references to “non-interference” in the internal affairs of other countries are to be expected, they seem here to be a pretext to put the spotlight on the responsibilities that, according to the author, Germany should assume unilaterally.

The analysis and the critique of the current situation is based on the belief that it is in the country’s (short term) interests to preserve the status quo in light of the domination it exercises both through key European mandates it has secured and the sheer economic and financial muscle it deploys.

If no one will contest that Germany must pull its full weight behind Union reform in order for it to succeed, it is totally illusory to believe that such an appeal to unilateral solidarity will elicit the support of the German elector if it is presented independently of a project in which all the actors are prepared to accept constraints that encroach on their national egoisms. The debate, that the writer is rightly calling for, would clearly be welcome but its significance, within a purely national context, would be considerably more limited than was the case recently in France: contrary to the majority German public opinion, the pro-European position of the candidate Macron was at total variance with the majority opinion of the French electorate (75% in the first round); nevertheless, his 2/3rd majority in the second round in which the main debate opposed his vision of an “open and protective Europe” to the Front National’ preference for an inward looking “Fortress France”, delivered an undeniable mandate to the President.

P. Defraigne’ argumentation – even if such is not his intention – seems to endorse the necessary “intergovernmental” nature of the EU/EMU reform by emphasising the “historical responsibility” of Germany. One should, of course question in parallel the motivations of President Macron whose choice between a European France and a French EU remains fairly ambiguous and which, once clarified, will be an additional indication of his preference for a supranational or intergovernmental Europe.

A reformed EU/EMU on an intergovernmental pattern is unlikely to elicit the full support of Member States because it enshrines the domination of the most powerful and encourages the weaker ones to hang on to the greatest amount possible of residual sovereignty, however illusory it may be. The model institutionalizes the preponderance of the Member States in the decision making process and has often lead, in the past, to unhealthy compromises if not serious blockages.

Another temptation to avoid is creating confusion by overlooking the differences in the constraints relating to EU and EMU reform; the article under discussion does not completely escape from it when it amalgamates the “three fronts of European paralysis” for which German inertia would be partially responsible. If EMU constitutes presently the most developed (though incomplete) form of “shared sovereignty” it appears practically impossible to envisage deepening or extending its competencies without requiring potential new Members to adopt the whole of the “acquis” of EMU. Indeed if sovereignty is liable to be shared, it is not divisible into entities presenting variable ad hoc memberships. Joining on a voluntary (and retractable) basis certain areas of cooperation is conceivable though without acquiring any rights in the decision making process, as is the case for Denmark in EMU; it would also be the case if the UK chooses to adopt slavishly all the constraints (present and future, including budgetary) of the Single Market and the Customs Union in order to ensure the status quo ante.

If the project of further integration of the Union is to be successful, one should also consider other complementary aspects to those discussed, for which reference to the American experience can be useful.

For example, in the United States there is no desire or obligation to enforce a specific equilibrium between the representation of the States and the appointments to “federal” offices, be they administrative, political, judicial or military (which does not prohibit enforcing other forms of desirable equilibria). Achieving a similar objective within the Union should be a shared goal clearly enshrined in the reform program and introduced progressively with determination (on the model of gender equality) in order to enhance the feeling of European citizenship. Instituting EU-wide political parties alongside those preoccupied mainly with national or regional matters is another facet of this crucial endeavour: ensuring democratic representation at Union level should have at least equal prominence with social and economic topics within the reform debate.

Such a “revolutionary” approach can only be justified if it is based on a geopolitical (top down) vision in which effective sovereignty is shared within a sufficiently independent (EU) entity, capable of defending its interests on the world stage. Any alternative approach is based on a narrow conception of national interests (Brexit), and leads necessarily to a form of subordination: the acceptance without a say of rules imposed by the EU, the USA, China, etc. and dependence on their goodwill. Relying on the Westphalian maxim “divide to rule” is no longer applicable in a multipolar world unless one is among the main actors or benefits from an undisputable inbuilt advantage.

If it is welcome that Germany and France should take the initiative of EU reform, it behoves them to associate the other Member States in their endeavours, aiming at a fair equilibrium which emphasizes the interests of the Union as a whole. A consensus over the necessity for a European approach is already gaining traction in the areas of defence, the fight against terrorism, immigration, etc., even if the modalities of implementation are far from being agreed. This trend is also apparent in the (surprising) cohesion in the position of the EU 27 in the Brexit negotiations, giving a practical demonstration of the added value of the Union.

It should be evident for all Europeans that once the sharing of sovereign powers has reached a certain level, it becomes necessary, in order to advance further, to pool all of them because they are so indissociably linked. Any attempt at further deep EU reform should recognize that one has gone as far as possible in what can be accomplished by small incremental steps but this situation also reinforces the need to be rigorous in the application of the principle of “subsidiarity”.

To conclude, I will share with P. Defraigne’ the wish that Germany realizes that it is in its (long term) interests to back European integration from which it has been one of the main beneficiaries. Nevertheless, its implementation is equally dependant on the goodwill of France and the other Member States to engage loyally in the construction of a partnership aimed at serving and protecting the interests and values of all its citizens.