Save Europe – A book by Hubert Védrine

Is it possible to reboot the European Union?

And is Jean-Claude Juncker the rigJunckerht man to do it? After all, this is the man who, as PM of Luxembourg during the financial crisis, said ‘we all know what needs to be done, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.’

Hubert Védrine has no such issue. Unhampered by the constraints of office, the former French Foreign Minister has weighed in on the Future of Europe debate with a series of radical proposals.

Védrine, once a vocal proponent of European integration, is urging a complete overhaul of the EU.

As a diplomatic advisor to François Mitterand, then Foreign Minister under the Jospin government from 1997 to 2002, Védrine was there at the birth of today’s EU: the creation of the Schengen zone and the Euro, in particular. But it seems even he has since had a change of heart, arguing in his new book Save Europe that the EU is in need of major reform:

‘This self-righteous European entity, full of good intentions, is waking up to a painful reality,’ he writes, ‘in a sort of Jurassic Park.’

Huber Verdine
Hubert Vedrine

Unlike most EU politicians, with the notable exception of Juncker and his Vice-President Franz Timmermans, Védrine doesn’t conflate being pro-EU with being a euro-federalist ‘Européiste’.

Take the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, for example. While he agrees with Védrine that Europe is ‘in the throes of an existential crisis’, the solution he offers in his new book Europe’s Last Chance is a devolution of further powers to the EU.

Védrine, however, advocates minimising the EU’s legislative powers, promoting national sovereignty, and most importantly, making the EU work for Europeans.

‘The most dangerous problem’ facing the EU, Védrine argues, is the divide between Europeans and the decision-making elite, and an ensuing ‘sense of democratic dispossession’. Brexit is just the latest sign of this disengagement, he argues.

Unsurprisingly, he dismisses the ‘arrogant’ idea of ‘punishing’ Britain for Brexit.

In Europe’s Last Chance, Verhofstadt refers to the ‘nationalist delusion’ that ‘haunts Europe’. Védrine argues that this Européiste demonization of the inherently democratic aspiration to conserve national sovereignty is often – ironically – what leads people to vote for far right parties like the Front National.

Marine Le Pen Front National
Marine and Jean Marie Le Pen at a rally in honour of Joan of Arc, Paris

Védrine posits that the out of touch federalists running the EU make up less than 1% of Europeans. He estimates that roughly 20% of Europeans are actively anti-Europe, 20% are pro-Europe, and 60% are sceptical but swayable.

‘Rather than stopping to analyse people’s discontent or engage in any kind of self-criticism’, he writes, ‘proponents of “More Europe” stubbornly continue to stigmatise public disengagement’.

Unsurprisingly, he dismisses the ‘arrogant’ idea of ‘punishing’ Britain for Brexit.

Védrine instead suggests pausing the relentless expansion – which has left the EU stretched, fragmented, and unresponsive – to re-evaluate its role.

Whilst it would take courage to decree such a pause, he argued in a recent interview with RFI, ‘it would take an even greater lack of awareness to do nothing.’

The next stage would be a conference organised by the ‘most determined governments’ to agree on the Union’s new role. The aim would be to define ‘a few key missions [for the EU], with the goal of preserving the European way of life in tomorrow’s world’.

EU Parliament
European Parliament

The EU would base all decisions regarding its function on the ‘will of the people’. While British Remain voters still have nightmares about this phrase, Védrine asserts that ‘most European peoples are open to a European project’. This may not be true for much longer, however, if the disengagement he highlights is left to fester.

Védrine advocates adopting an ethos of genuine subsidiarity – so that the EU only deals with what nations can’t do alone – as well as the harmonisation of fiscal and asylum policies, and more EU military cooperation.

Védrine is clearly a believer in compromise – a quality no doubt instilled in him during his time in government. But at times his proposals can feel cynical. For example, he justifies trading with nations with poor human rights records saying foreign policy shouldn’t be ‘missionary work’ and ‘diplomacy is about dealing with the world in a way that advances our interests’.

And though he argues for ‘a more generous response to asylum requests’, his inaccurate claim that most of these come ‘from Syrians’, and his careless reference to ‘waves of economic immigrants from Africa’ is Védrine at his most dispassionate. When we asked him about this in our interview (published next week), he replied that he was free not to abide by ‘political or linguistic correctness’.

Refugees wait for a train to Serbia on a track near a train station in Demir Kapija, Macedonia.

But for all its policy proposals, Save Europe is less a manifesto and more an alternative ethos – ‘a major shift in mentality’ ­– for European Union to live by. And while his brand of realism may not be to everyone’s taste, his idea of aligning public opinion with legislation would certainly gain popularity, one thing today’s EU is severely lacking. Fears about immigration must be reflected in EU migration policy, he argues, however justified those fears may be.

Védrine sees the EU’s new role as extranational, not supranational: ‘suggesting, encouraging, fixing goals and showing the way, without regulating everything in detail.’

Once an outline of a reformed EU exists, he then proposes putting it to a referendum. Given the disastrous history EU referenda have between Brexit and the doomed EU Constitution, that’s unlikely to be a popular suggestion, but he’s not wrong that some kind of democratic legitimacy is required.

The Eurodeputies arguing for further political integration are no doubt convinced that history will be kind to them, but if the European electorate sees no change in this mulish Européiste stance, their scepticism may soon turn into something far more ominous for the EU.

Save EuropePro-Europeans will point to Western Europe’s support for a ‘two-speed Europe’ as a sign that the EU is capable of adapting to a changing political landscape, but the myopic “More Europe” argument has been the Brussels line for so long that the worry is this is too little, too late.

Indeed, the malaise afflicting the EU has as much to do with reputation now as anything else.

‘The modern EU was obviously primarily designed to give middle-aged men something to do once they have finished governing Belgium or Luxembourg,’ wrote Roland White in The Times recently.

Perhaps the most crucial of all the problems Védrine’s plan would address would be the EU’s ruinous public image.

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