Will a fossilised France spell the end of a united Europe?

Bruno Vever


9 December 2022

While the war in Ukraine continues, European solidarity, which has been exemplary to date, is no longer free of tensions. Certainly, its aid is actively pursued, both in terms of supplies, health support and refugee reception, as well as on the military level, with effective arms deliveries, with the United States playing the leading role, putting the invader in severe difficulty. Sanctions against Russia are also intensifying, affecting its means of financing the war. But they often have very marked negative repercussions for Europeans, many of whom were highly dependent on this trade for their energy imports.

European solidarity not without tensions

Faced with a war whose scale, effects and unpredictability remain unprecedented on the continent since 1945, each state therefore tends, beyond the solidarity displayed by the Union, to reduce as much as possible the direct impact on its own interests. Thus, to the great displeasure of France, Chancellor Scholz does not ask anyone's permission to go to Beijing to secure his relations with his first client, to undertake a strictly national recovery plan of 200 billion euros, to give preference to the United States for his rearmament programme of 100 billion euros, and to initiate a common defence programme for the European sky without French participation.

None of this would have happened, and Putin himself would probably not have risked attacking Ukraine, if Europe had equipped itself, following German reunification and continental enlargement, with a common governance based on a unified foreign policy and an autonomous military deterrent beyond the existence of NATO. But France and Germany have long been playing at being brothers in arms, with differences that have not ceased due to two cleavages:

On the one hand, a nationalism that has remained alive and emotional in France, through all its ups and downs: Versailles, the Enlightenment, the storming of the Bastille, the rights of man, the Empire, the victory of 1918, the Resistance and Free France in the ranks of the victors are all grounds for commemoration. The situation is the opposite in Germany, where any nationalist inclination is strictly controlled, if not repressed, following the trauma of the Nazi period, with its aggressions and persecutions, the total defeat and the shame of the Holocaust. The only thing they have in common is that neither country is trying to play the European nationalism card, which is all the more utopian as they have never tried it!

The other fundamental difference is the attitude towards federalism. While nobody in France dares to advocate a federal Europe, unlike some in the past, Chancellor Scholz's coalition of social democrats, liberals and greens has explicitly included this goal in its programme, and will hardly be worried by like-minded Christian democrats.

In order to understand and learn from this 'I love you, but I don't love you either', badly buried under the bilateral treaties of a cooperation that is intended to be privileged, but which threatens the very future of the Union, we must recall the events of a turbulent history.

A contested union from the start

The Fourth Republic, unloved and afflicted by all the evils, but which only succumbed to an unmanageable colonial heritage, had a triple merit: national reconstruction, European construction and the launch of the thirty glorious years, which were mutually linked. The initiative for the common market of the six countries played a decisive role in this.

Nothing was simple, however, right from the start. In 1950, faced with a devastated and divided post-war Europe threatened by Stalin's expansionism, Jean Monnet had the personal insight to encourage Robert Schuman, the foreign minister, a Lotharner with a dual culture and an antagonistic history, to reshuffle the deck. He offered Chancellor Adenauer, without any mandate from his own government and outside official diplomatic channels, the common future of a European Coal and Steel Community whose supranational institutions could control industries that had been at the heart of previous wars. This was the first step towards a united Europe.

Georges Bidault, supposedly informed by Monnet but distracted by other concerns, or even unaware of the impact of the project, and probably both, was about to conclude his Council of Ministers when Schuman, having received last minute confirmation of Adenauer's agreement, had his plan endorsed by a Council caught short. All that remained for Bidault to do was to let Schuman rally four other countries to negotiate and sign the ECSC Treaty on 18 April 1951, which was ratified despite the opposition of the Communists and the Gaullists, who saw it as nothing more than a "mishmash", as the General put it.

Faced with the parallel and pressing problem of recreating an army in West Germany, Jean Monnet, this time inspiring the new President of the Council, René Pleven, brought to fruition a project for a European Defence Community, signed by the six on 27 May 1952. It was agreed that this EDC would be accompanied by a European Political Community, i.e. a federalised Europe, the provisions of which had yet to be specified.

This was without the opposing and persistent coalition of communists and Gaullists in France, who were in a hurry to take their revenge on the ECSC and saw in the EDC nothing but a worsening of the "mishmash", which had been outrageously turned to green. The ratification of the EDC became the hot potato of successive governments and, after a very long political and parliamentary quarrel, was finally rejected by the National Assembly on 30 August 1954. Following this late French defection, the EDC sank into the dustbin of history.

The United States, which had become practically the sole defender of Europe in the face of the thousands of Soviet tanks likely to leave the Elbe for the Atlantic, only obtained this German rearmament through the palliative in October 1954 of a Western European Union integrated into NATO, which had been set up in 1949.

The creation of a unified army under a European political framework having become, and remaining today, a taboo evacuated from the construction of Europe, the latter preferred to abandon the military for the commercial, soon added to the agricultural, less favourable to political clashes on all sides. The Treaty of Rome of 25 March 1957 creating the common market was nevertheless supplemented by a Euratom Treaty which, despite the changes since the ECSC, aimed to create a European Atomic Energy Community.

A difficult Fifth Republic partner

Back in office following the Algiers putsch that paved the way for the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle ultimately judged that the common market would have the merit of strengthening French companies that had remained overly protectionist, but allowed Euratom to sink, threatening his political, civil and military plans for nuclear autonomy.

The new regime's preference for a clearly intergovernmental and by no means supranational Europe led to the proposal of a Fouchet plan. However, this plan came up against the refusal of the other five to abandon the Community approach initiated by Jean Monnet, preferring to leave the clarification of the common mode of political governance pending. France was therefore forced to restrict its plan from six to two, with the Franco-German Elysée Treaty of 1963, the ratification of which had to be subject to the addition by the Bundestag of an explicitly Atlanticist reference.

The Gaullist refusal of any federal drift was then brutally expressed with, in addition to the secession from NATO, a policy of empty chair in front of any project of European resources escaping the unanimous control of the States. France only put an end to this with the Luxembourg compromise, which in fact formalised the disagreement but introduced unanimity in the case of interests deemed essential, which were put to all uses for twenty years.

The Pompidou presidency calmed tensions with the triptych completion, deepening and enlargement of a first European summit in The Hague, while the Giscard d'Estaing presidency, together with Chancellor Schmidt, was again a pioneer with the permanent creation of the European Council, the election of the European Parliament by universal suffrage and the European Monetary System.

As for President Mitterrand, he tried in vain to pursue an alternative left-wing policy against the tide of his partners, but in the end he returned, in every sense of the word, to more orthodoxy, which was the price of his remaining in the EMS. Above all, following a personal rapprochement with Chancellor Kohl, he obtained that the Presidency of the European Commission be entrusted to Jacques Delors. The latter, as inspired as he was determined, committed himself to the completion of the single market by 1992 with the Single Act of 1986. This relaunch swapped the obstacles of unanimity for majority agreements, leading finally, with the unexpected German reunification, the prelude to continental enlargement, to the advent of monetary union ratified by the Maastricht Treaty of 7 February 1992 creating the European Union, which was narrowly ratified in France by a divisive referendum arousing old tensions and unfulfilled grudges.

A persistent Franco-German misunderstanding

It was then that Germany tried to propose twice, to President Mitterrand in cohabitation with a Balladur government in 1994 and then to President Chirac in cohabitation with a Jospin government in 2000, a political union framing this monetary union. But the only response was a repetitive silence. Nevertheless, it was subsequently agreed to invite an intergovernmental conference chaired by Giscard d'Estaing, involving the European Parliament and civil society, to negotiate a constitutional treaty synthesising the architecture, streamlining decisions and clarifying even the vocabulary, obtaining the endorsement of the French Academy!

However, this clarification did not go so far as to shed light on France's European future! For the constitutional treaty signed on 29 October 2004 broke down on 29 May 2005 in a referendum that President Chirac had the unfortunate idea of choosing for its ratification, while the ratification of the parliament was largely assured. Everything then turned into a free-for-all: even the very classic provisions of the Treaty of Rome, taken up as they were in the new treaty, were contested within parties that were suddenly divided, both internally and among themselves, abusing a majority of the voters, who were the recipients of the integrity of the document but who were just as misled in this mess.

President Sarkozy did try to save from disaster what could be saved to allow the enlarged European Union to have a minimum of decision-making means. This was the purpose of the Lisbon Treaty of 29 October 2007, described as a 'mini-treaty' so as not to insult the referendum, but made illegible by multiple references to voluminous annexes, while abandoning in the middle of a campaign what could still make sense of a common identity, i.e. the flag and the European anthem. These symbols, although stripped of any official status, were fortunately preserved in practice by the institutions and the Member States.

Following a Hollande presidency that was less contentious than had been announced, President Macron wanted to once again join the ranks of European pioneers, while adding his famous "at the same time". Wishing to reconcile the France of Charles de Gaulle, whose Lorraine cross was introduced into the Republican coat of arms, and the Europe of Jean Monnet, whose star-spangled flag was honoured at the Arc de Triomphe, he made numerous European advances to Chancellor Merkel, summarising them in his vast programme speech at the Sorbonne and reiterating them at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, then again at the European Parliament in Strasbourg during his six-month presidency of the Council of the Union. Unfortunately, his numerous proposals were met with the same silence that France had once opposed to German proposals.

Federalization still a divisive issue

The reasons for this mutual desynchronisation can be summarised in a few words: Germany pragmatically wants a federalised Europe with strong institutions, while France seeks to reconcile its lyrical vision of a sovereign Europe with the preservation of states that remain strong, at the expense of comparatively weak common institutions. Let us look for where and by whom the error lies...

Admittedly, this Macron presidency is proving to be less systematically opposed to any supranationality than most of its predecessors, as shown by the successful initiative this time with Germany that led the Union to collectively indebt itself by 2058 to support the economic recovery at the end of Covid. But this is an exception imposed by an extraordinary situation, which may well not change the rule, that of a persistent lack of understanding of the federal concept.

For Germany, this concept has much deeper roots than the creation of the Bundesrepublik under the sponsorship of the Western allies. The Bund refers to the Hanseatic alliance, which for centuries brought together, in mutual harmony, the Germanic cities and principalities that remained equally sovereign and jealous of their prerogatives, including within the Holy Roman Empire, whereas France was built, from the beginning, on an inflexible royal power subjecting feudalities to its omnipresent and indivisible central authority.

And just as the Revolution and the Empire did not alter the authority of the central power in France, which has survived through all its regimes to the present day, so the German Empire, founded in 1871 by the Kingdom of Prussia, although born under the gilded halls of Versailles, did not seek to impose German unity by trampling on the kingdoms and principalities of which it was composed, but rather relied on them while respecting their particularities and autonomies.

Only the Third Reich ruthlessly broke a federal pact that had been in existence for several hundred years by imposing its absolute centralisation, relayed in all territories by its gauleiter, a Nazi version, albeit in a different and more radical form, of our prefects. How can we fail to understand that all centralisation imposed by such a regime has remained cursed in the memory of our neighbours, since it is associated with the worst dictatorship that has led to the worst disaster they have ever known on all levels?

It is therefore easier to understand why this reference to federalism essentially evokes, both instinctively and rationally, an imprescriptible guarantee of freedoms at the different levels, starting with the regional and then the national level, since any upward delegation of powers can only be justified by respecting these freedoms and according to the only common interests, duly circumscribed and controlled at the different levels, that justify the transfer. As long as these interests appear to be better defended at European level, their transfer will not pose a problem.

This vision and the federal political organisation itself are shared by all our other neighbours and are associated with a parliamentary democracy which prevails in all the Member States of the European Union, with the exception of one: France and its outdated centralisation, further reinforced by the Fifth Republic with its extraordinary presidential power.

A centralized France that remained resistant

The federal idea has never been successful in France, despite our recent regions artificially added without much means to the departments well controlled by the central power. It has only had isolated advocates such as Tocqueville, atypical and exiled figures such as La Fayette, mistreated militants such as the Girondins eliminated by the Montagnards during the Revolution. Their rare heirs, some of whom were able to approach the arcanes of power, have hardly left any traces or outstanding institutions and do not count in a collective memory where great men are measured against the national and regal authority with which they marked the country.

Our political, administrative and legal apparatus is itself structurally uncomfortable and threatened as soon as it is caught between a European level that exceeds it and a regional level that claims to be autonomous. An illustrative example of this is given by our Council of State, created by Napoleon, which has just rejected, on its own authority, all alternatives to the technical inspection of motorised two-wheelers, despite the fact that these alternatives were explicitly provided for by the Parliament and the Council of the Union at the origin of the directive, and that they were duly presented to the European Commission by our government and approved by it. The fact that such interference arouses the anger and anti-Europeanism of millions of users will hardly bother our high court, which will attribute the responsibility to a Europe that is as short-circuited as it is irrelevant. And if the government renounces any arbitration by the European Court of Justice, which the Conseil d'Etat should have already referred to by way of a preliminary question, is it not also to preserve this French exception?

In search of a second wind

Beyond this anecdotal but revealing reminder of a state of mind, the question of a clarified European political governance cannot be avoided forever.

A persistent contradiction deserves to be cleared up by France. Let us recall that Olaf Scholz, then a minister in the Merkel government, raised the prospect of a European transfer of the French permanent seat on the UN Security Council. But France excludes sharing its permanent seat, while claiming for the sake of form to grant another one to Germany. How then can this position be reconciled with the pleas for the sovereignty of a "powerful Europe", at the heart of President Macron's speeches at the Sorbonne, in Berlin and in Strasbourg? And how can we give credibility to a common foreign and security policy that makes sense for Europe and for our external partners in such a situation?

A major step would be to conclude an agreement with Germany to ensure that the positions expressed by the French representative on the UN Security Council would henceforth be expressed on behalf of both countries, in consultative liaison with the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, as a prelude to a politically unified European voice.

By restoring a visible and driving meaning to the Franco-German axis, such a change would also make it possible to build a genuine common security, armaments and defence policy on a calmer and healthier basis, in which the other Member States would be invited to participate, as the core of an autonomous European deterrent, in close partnership with NATO but no longer in strict subordination. This would also have multiple positive effects for Europe to catch up with its political weight, its industrial competitiveness and its technological backwardness in the face of the major strategic changes that are accelerating today on a global scale.

For most French, Germans and other Europeans today, such a prospect will no doubt be tantamount to "reaching for the moon". But let us remember Kennedy's words announcing precisely this objective: "we choose to go there, not because it is easy, but because it is difficult! So what are we waiting for to reclaim a similar will in the ambition of the unprecedented and to renew the determination that Jean Monnet rightly set as a line of conduct from the very beginning of European construction, sweeping aside the ever-changing vagaries of optimism and pessimism?

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