France will likely go along with the deal, but is cautious of any measures that would stymie future integration
France made its position clear on the reform package made public by president Tusk last week. On 3 February, French president Francois Hollande stated that France wants the UK to remain within the European Union. He also confirmed that he supported the draft compromise. But he also stressed its opposition to any new adjustment, or any further negotiations. And he reiterated France’s refusal of anything comparable to a veto on the Eurozone’s decisions by a country outside the zone.
The latter point was always a key French concern when trying to accommodate Mr. Cameron’s requests with regard to the coming referendum on British membership. And even if France is ready to support Mr. Tusk’s package at the coming European Council (18-19 February), some worries remain. France, together with Germany, favours further integration within the Eurozone, and cannot support any device, meant to accommodate outside concerns, that would eventually hinder such integration. In addition, French officials stress the need for speedy decision making in specific circumstances. In their view, the mechanism proposed by president Tusk should be as circumscribed as possible, and in any case should not prevent the Eurozone from developing itself.
Other topics discussed in Brussels and between capitals have been less of a concern in Paris. Increasing competitiveness was not an issue, and the agreement put forward by president Tusk’s package is barely mentioned. The proposal to loosen the interpretation of the “ever closer union” provision is hard felt by pro-European officials, but even they recognise that this is more of a political symbol than a consequential decision.
However, the so-called “emergency brake” – suspension of national welfare in case of an exceptional situation – raises more serious problems about equality between EU citizens. In his statement, president Hollande renewed France’s support to the principle of freedom of movement. In private, diplomats note that the solution currently envisioned raises political questions, might be difficult to swallow for the European Parliament, and will eventually be legally questioned by the EU Court of Justice. They also wonder how it could be of immediate application, as statements by the Commission suggested. But at the end of the day, this is unlikely to be a deal-breaker for France.
The reform of the “yellow card” system that allows national parliaments to challenge draft regulations by the European Commission is probably the issue that comes closest to the Eurozone priority. Paris made clear on several occasions that it doesn’t want this to evolve into a “red card”. The legal consequences of the mechanism put forward by president Tusk are therefore carefully assessed by experts, who note that the pressure would now be on the Council rather than the Commission. Yet, in practical terms, if 16 out of 28 parliaments ask for a decision to be reconsidered, their request would be difficult to ignore in any case.
Other than the government’s, reactions have been scarce. Amid limited popular or political interest, the discussion takes place mostly between journalists and experts. Few believe a Brexit would actually benefit Europe, even though ideas of political integration “à la carte” are making a comeback in this context. Fewer still think that the reforms asked for by Britain, even though an overall win for PM Cameron, will have a positive impact for the EU. Most will go along if the measures cleverly crafted by president Tusk allow for muddling through current difficulties.
Pro-European experts see all this episode as a bad precedent. They compare it to theatre, or even a wrestling match, with faked dramatisation. It sets a precedent that not only obstructs the horizon for political integration, but departs from the federalist “acquis” or at least unravels key principles. It would also encourage other Eurosceptic parties to enter into exit blackmail, a strategy that Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front national and likely candidate for the 2017 presidential election, said she would resort to if elected. It may also raise tensions within Europe on the freedom of movement issue. And it is not even certain to rally British voters, nor be sufficient to allow the EU to turn to more pressing issue.
Despite these concerns, however, there remains a fear of a serious national conversation about Europe, underlining that in France also, elites are unable to respond convincingly to doubts and disenchantment with Europe.