Save Europe: Highlights from our Interview with Hubert Védrine

Hubert Védrine helped forge the modern EU.

Hubert Vedrine Save Europe The Pan European

As general secretary of the Mitterrand Presidency from 1991 to 1995, then Foreign Minister under the Jospin government from 1997 to 2002, Hubert Védrine had a hand in the creation the Schengen zone and the European Monetary Union, as well as the adoption of the euro.

But in his new book Save Europe, Védrine describes the ‘widening gap’ between the decision-making elites and the European peoples, and argues that the EU is in need of a complete overhaul.

The PanEuropean met with the author to discuss his concerns, and to hear him outline his vision for an alternative future. Here are some of the highlights.

Former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine
Former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine

Hubert Védrine argued that the European project wasn’t originally conceived as a federal and supranational entity.

“Let’s not forget that the European project began as a by-product of the Marshall plan [which formalised US aid to Western Europe in the aftermath of WWII]. As a matter of fact, the true founding fathers of the European Union are not those who appear in the history books.

“Before Monnet [French international civil servant and one of the founders of the European Union] and Schuman [French Christian-democrat and centrist politician, one of the founders of the European Union], there was Stalin and Truman. And to the Atlanticists who engineered the European Community, Europe was by no means to become a political power, but rather an economic and free trade zone.

“It was not until Mitterrand [French President] and Kohl [German Chancellor] – and Delors after him – relaunched the building of Europe through far-reaching economic and social undertakings that the question of the scope of the project and the nature of the Federation arose.

“The Commission and the states share a common responsibility with regards to a trend that became apparent during the construction of Europe. If you speak with those who participated in the initial launching of the project, such as George Berthouin [Jean Monnet’s chief of staff] it is clear that the Commission was designed to play a limited role focused on the promotion of high-level pan-European policies and objectives, and not to become a supranational and omnipotent body.”

Part of the reason for Europeans’ disengagement with the EU, he argued, is that member States – including France – have actively contributed to both the concentration and the extension of the Union’s powers.

“It was no sooner than 1986 – when the act was signed to create the single market – that European regulation started to grow and multiply to its current scale, which is something Europeans deplore.

“We must bear in mind that the European directive was devised as a specific legal instrument precisely to keep the European norms at an objective level and prevent them from interfering with the national scope for regulation.

“There was no room in this initial idea for the so-called “chocolate” directive and the well-publicised excessive regulations of recent years that have caused such widespread rejection among – up until now – pro-European voters.

“Only a debatable interpretation of the Commission’s role in the building of the single market could lead to such an imbalance, and it is fair to say that despite the concerns voiced against red tape, France contributed to the trend by exporting its tendency to hyper-regulate to Brussels.”

He argued that EU enlargement was not the only problem.

“The political integration process was not managed wisely due to a combination of haste, dogmatism and the elite’s disregard for the people’s feelings. Enlargement is another story.

“No conqueror has ever been able to unify Europe. Creating the United States of America was a matter of uniting Americans, unifying Europe’s old nations, with so many different histories, cultures and languages – even in a peaceful manner and through a democratic process – remains an unprecedented challenge.

“The EU treaties stipulate that any European country can join the Union as long as it complies with the fundamental principles of the EU, one of which is democracy.

“We can discuss whether Turkey is a European country, but does the question arise for Poland? When the Soviet Union fell in 1991 and the countries of Eastern Europe were freed and could convert to democracy, these countries had de jure their place in the European Union. How exactly could we not invite them to join us and start the accession process?

“It took no less than 15 years for most of them to join the Union, the same amount of time President Mitterrand had offered them back in 1989 to stay in a confederation before accessing the Union, a proposition they had declined for fear of being kept outside the Union. 15 years, that is not what I would call haste.

In my eyes, enlargement is not the source of our current problems. It is worth remembering that before the fifth enlargement was processed, we French were in favour of what we called ‘deepening’. Should this second path have been chosen, which would have meant us giving up the unanimity rule (by which every country retains a veto right), we would have been forced to relinquish our social model, our foreign policy and our cultural exemption.”

Hubert Védrine proposed a three step-process of “pause, conference, refoundation” to remedy the widening gap between the EU and the European people.

“My plan is to win back the Eurosceptics using shock treatment: the pause. Governments would listen to the people and accommodate for their aspirations for safety and sovereignty, irrespective of what the elites think.

“The second step would be a clarifying conference excluding the European Commission – at least at an early stage. All the German Chancellors I knew condemned the joint action of the Commission and the Court of Justice to increase their respective remit.

Liberated from the influence of the Commission, the conference could place subsidiarity at the centre of its review of European Union policies with the clear objective of satisfying the people.

Only after a few years of such a process would governments propose a new project to the people, possibly by referendum. This would be the refoundation phase.”

Hubert Védrine also argued that it was key that the EU improves and speeds up immigration processes whilst maintaining the ability to distinguish between asylum seekers and economic migrants.

“It is now crucial for Europe’s relationship with its citizens that a common, viable policy regarding both immigration and asylum is devised. If Europeans feel that the door of their house is wide-open, they will want to move out.

“It is my belief that if we ceased to differentiate between economic migrants and asylum seekers, who by the way fall under different legal frameworks, we would witness the end of the right to asylum in Europe.

Conflating different types of migrants – like the far right does, but also the Christian left and the compassionate left – at a time when migrants stream into Europe, will lead public opinion to turn vehemently against any kind of immigration.

“We may deal with asylum seekers’ rights in the countries of departure, in the so-called hotspots, or on our borders. But it is crucial that we reserve asylum status for those in mortal danger because of their ethnic affiliation, their religion, their sex, etc.

For economic migrants, we must define co-management processes between the countries of departure – from West Africa for instance – transit countries in the Maghreb, and arrival countries in the Schengen zone.

As I have already suggested, the three types of countries should hold periodical conferences once a year or every other year in order to define quotas of migrants by profession.”

Hubert Védrine argued that none of the French Presidential candidates have a credible plan to rescue the EU.

“The anti-Europeans have no plan. On the left, they are critical of the rules of sound management of public finances and pretend to believe that they have been imposed on us by the Germans.

“Macron is a classical pro-European but he hasn’t proposed anything so far that would win back the dropouts.”

Click here to read the full interview.