Since it was first mooted in the summer, the Sarkozy proposal for a new round of arguments about the future of Europe has been met with growing consternation.
A cool response to Sarkozy's EU agenda
By Andrew Duff, MEP
Published: November 20 2007 11:01
French president Nicolas Sarkozy descended on the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week to give a formal address in his capacity as a new head of state. The occasion did not allow for a proper debate on the floor of the House, but MEPs showed their usual dexterity in fine-tuning their cheers and jeers.
It was an important speech for him and for us, not least because France takes over the presidency of the European Union in July next year. All being well, Mr Sarkozy will preside over the delicate institutional arrangements that have to be made if the Treaty of Lisbon is to come into force on schedule on 1 January 2009.
The French President hopes, like everyone else, that what he persists in describing as le traité simplifié, will settle the union's constitutional difficulties for some time to come. Now, he says, there remain important political questions to be debated without taboo, and resolved. ‘In a democratic Europe, we should be able to discuss Europe's goals and finalities.'
He proposes the setting up of a committee of wise men to reflect on possible scenarios, and to ‘design the features and contours of tomorrow's Europe'. This comité des sages will debate the nature of European and national identities - and how to defend them.
According to Mr Sarkozy, Europeans are suffering a deep identity crisis caused by the challenge of globalised markets and alien culture. His animosity towards Islam in general and Turkey in particular is not well disguised. He speaks boldly of European spiritual values, moral order and civilisation, on which Europe's unity is founded, and of the need to protect them fiercely. No woolly liberal he.
Since it was first mooted in the summer, the Sarkozy proposal for a new round of arguments about the future of Europe has been met with growing consternation. Uppermost is the fear that the exercise will interfere in the smooth ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon.
Evidence that the EU has not settled, at least for the next few years, its interminable rows over the balance of power will not help the fight against the eurosceptics. Fatigue is also a factor: Nicolas Sarkozy may be fairly new to this game, but most of his interlocutors in the institutions and several other heads of government have been trading in the European futures markets for many years. Where indeed shall new wisdom be found?
José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, has made it clear that the European Commission regards the Sarkozy proposal coolly. He wants no new institutional debate and no attempt to draw on maps the final geographical frontiers of the EU. There is an agreed enlargement process in train, now involving Croatia and Turkey, with up to six other Balkan countries on the waiting list. A budgetary review is due to begin in earnest next year. And decisions on these matters, Mr Barroso told MEPs, would be up to the EU institutions and not to an ad hoc group of men and women, however wise. In any event, the Sarkozy committee should report not at the end of the French presidency in December 2008 but to the new Commission to be elected in November 2009.
Mr Barroso has support for his view not only in the parliament but also in the European Council, and not least from Gordon Brown. The British prime minister's recent speech to Mansion House makes an interesting contrast to that of the French President. Gone are the customary references of Tony Blair, his predecessor, to building ‘political Europe'. In its place, the new prime minister wants a ‘Global Europe - a Europe that is outward looking, open, internationalist, able to effectively respond both through internal reform and external action to the economic, security and environmental imperatives of globalisation'. Clearly, if the leadership of Europe were just left up to MM. Brown and Sarkozy, we would immediately lose our way.
The European Council on December 14 will have to agree on the mandate, composition and timetable for the committee of wise men and women. While nobody should seek to deny Mr Sarkozy the right to continue and deepen the European dimension of French politics, he should not be allowed to railroad the rest of the Union into following a narrow French agenda.
What happens strategically beyond the Treaty of Lisbon is still an open question. A decent exercise in scenario building for Europe in 2030 by a small group of clever people would be a valuable aid to strategic thinking. Respectable scenarios are possible with Turkey and the UK in, out, or half-way in or out of the European Union. Doubtless dear old France will always be in, still heavily engaged in its particular crise identitaire.
Andrew Duff MEP (Liberal, UK) is a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.