How to save the future of Europe – Interview with H. Védrine

A completely new direction for the EU?

In his new book Save EuropeHubert Védrine – the former French Foreign Minister – argues for a radical remodelling of the EU in order to realign what he sees as an overreaching Union with the desires of the European people.

In his office by the River Seine, we spoke to Mr Védrine about the past, present and future of the European Union.

Thibaut de Corday, Radio Nova
Courtesy of Thibaut de Corday, Radio Nova

TPE You refer in your book to the concept of a ‘Federation of Nation States’ popularised by Jacques Delors [French socialist politician, President of the European Commission from 1985 to 1995] in 1994. Does this oxymoron not demonstrate the inherent confusion of the European project’s goals?

HV If Delors used such an oxymoron, it was because of the complexity of the project, not the confusion of its goals. It is true that the concept is paradoxical, and open to at least two interpretations. Is Europe meant to take over the sovereignty of exhausted, decreasingly relevant nation states, or does it serve a group of sovereign states looking for strength in unity?

In the first scenario, Europe would mean the divestiture of national powers, while in the second such powers could be retained mostly at state level. For a long time, the risk of divestiture hasn’t been an issue, as the European project has remained limited in scope.

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 true founding fathers of the European Union are not those who appear in the history books.

In the 80s, it was Jacques Delors’ challenge to play around with both readings of his concept of a ‘Federation of Nation States’, in building a sui generis political union combining both federal and confederal features.

TPE You have criticised the European Commission’s interventionism and bureaucracy. Have French governments or French administrative culture played a role in the development of this trend?

Hubert Vedrine

HV 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.

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.

In 2015, Europeans awoke to the reality of the consequences of the wars on their doorstep

TPE Would you say that the states that signed the Schengen agreement did not properly cater for the surveillance and protection of a common external border?

HV Schengen was launched in an atmosphere of enthusiasm and genuine candour, in an anti-border era in which national boundaries were scorned for being out-dated fences incompatible with the freedom of movement.

The agreement was then extended relentlessly, in lockstep with the enlargement process. Most people were convinced that Europe’s continuous enlargement was the result of a historical necessity, a process that the most enthusiastic saw as a way to exert a pacifying influence on the rest of the world; it is fascinating to read the press of the time.

There was no urgency then to cater for a policy that would consolidate and protect the border of an ever-expanding territory, and no need to implement a selective process to differentiate between migrants and refugees at a time when asylum seekers presented themselves in such small numbers.

This was until 2015, when Europeans awoke to the reality of the consequences of the wars on their doorstep and the porosity of their moving borders.

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.

TPE You differentiate in your book between asylum seekers – who you say are mostly Syrian – and economic migrants – who you say are mostly African. As the notion of economic migrant has rather negative connotations, is such a distinction fair or relevant?

Refugee The PanEuropean

HV Please allow me not to abide by political or linguistic correctness, and to exercise my right to a freedom that is a key tenet of European culture – and isn’t being regulated by a treaty – the freedom of thought.

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 must exclude any extreme solution: no society can afford to be fully closed, and none can afford to be fully open. Our societies are now confronted with the necessity of managing migration flows. To that end, it is vital that we can distinguish between economic migrants and asylum seekers.

This doesn’t mean that we cannot improve and speed up our processes; 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.

We must exclude any extreme solution: no society can afford to be fully closed, and none can afford to be fully open.

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.

In my opinion, the only way Europeans are going to accept an ongoing immigration process is by maintaining the distinction between how we deal with both asylum seekers and economic migrants.

TPE Has the enlargement of the European Union has been ill managed?

HV That is not what I wrote. 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. The 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. That is, by the way, the 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.

Unifying Europe’s old nations, with so many different histories, cultures and languages, remains an unprecedented challenge.

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.

TPE Do you agree that by artificially easing interest and exchange rate pressures, the euro provided less disciplined member states with an easy option that eventually led to both excessive debt and a competitivity gap?

IMF Greece The PanEurope

HV That is partly true, but let’s remember the context of the creation of the euro in France. In the eighties, the French government, due to its Keynesian policies, had to deal with a heavy competitivity gap that periodically forced it to beg for devaluation from its partners in the European Monetary System.

It was President Mitterrand’s idea, in view of looming German reunification, to create a common currency in order not to be subjected to the growing supremacy of the Deutsche Mark.

It was Mitterrand who convinced Chancellor Kohl – who used to say that German reunification and building Europe were the two sides of the same coin – to press for the creation of the euro. The Germans asked for guaranties from countries adopting the euro.

It was Bérégovoy [French socialist politician, Economy and Finance Minister then Prime Minister under President Mitterrand] and Trichet [Governor of the Bank of France then Second Governor of the European Central bank from 2003 to 2011], who proposed the famous criteria for the Stability and Growth Pact [set of rules designed to ensure that countries in the European Union maintain sound public finances and coordinate their fiscal policies].

We then set about creating the euro, believing that it would create a virtuous circle, and that France would become more economically responsible in a context of more dynamic growth. That was our belief back in 1998.

The euro then delivered a lot of the expected benefits, but it didn’t prevent the participating countries from undertaking the necessary reforms. Germany was first to suffer from a gap in competitivity, in the context of reunification.

That led to the reforms of the Chancellor Schröder’s [German Chancellor from 1988 to 2005] second mandate, around 2002-2003. France, then governed by President Chirac [President from 1995 to 2007], didn’t follow. Sweden did, and rescued its welfare state. If France missed an occasion regarding the single currency, it was then.

TPE Your remedy to the widening gap between the EU and the European people consists of three steps: pause, conference, refoundation. Among the policies that should be preserved in your opinion is the Common Agricultural Policy. Isn’t this precisely the sort of policy that has led to todays’ rejection of the EU?

The pro-Europeans, coming from the centre left and the centre right, remain a minority, while the federalists – mainly found in European institutions or the think tanks – are electorally insignificant. 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 – as was decided for the Messina Conference [meeting of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) that lead to the creation of the European Economic Community in 1958] in 1955.

We cannot ask the Commission to reform itself; it would be against its nature – regardless of the goodwill shown by Mr Junker [President of the European Commission] and Mr Timmermans [Vice-President of the European Commission] – in much the same way as you cannot expect the European Court of Justice to relinquish some of its power.

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.

All the German Chancellors I knew condemned the joint action of the Commission and the Court of Justice.

TPE Can the Franco-German alliance still be the driving force behind the EU at a time when Germany’s economy has outgrown France’s by at least 40%?

HV Since German reunification, the Franco-German alliance hasn’t really existed except for the occasional short-term agreement, especially given the fact that France has fallen behind economically. A broader agreement could materialise, however, if France finally carried out much-needed reform (and if Germany lost competitivity by correcting the Schroeder reforms).

There is no alternative to such an entente.

Save Europe Hubert Védrine The PanEuropean
World leaders including (L-R) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Donald Tusk and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas walk together in honour of the victims of a terrorist attack in Paris, France. 11 January 2015.

TPE What do you think of the idea of relaunching the European project with English as the common language?

HV It is true that the use of English is spreading in Europe and that it may prevail in the future. But I myself can’t be in favour of such a project. France is one of the few countries in history that inherited a language of civilisation, of culture and exchange, which is still spoken by more than 300 million people.

Translation technology might mean that soon there will be no more language barriers.

It cannot renounce its language, as neither Spain nor Germany would renounce theirs. What’s more, the use of English as a lingua franca might actually be starting to decline.

The ideal would be that, as is the case in small countries, people would speak three languages; English being one of them. And we mustn’t forget, translation technology might mean that soon there will be no more language barriers.

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