Concrete progress on central challenges are the way to respond to the crisis in Europe.
What will France be looking for in Bratislava this week? For François Hollande, as per his speech to the French ambassadors on August 30, it will be all about security, prosperity and confidence.
Unlike on other issues, the French president didn’t use the occasion to varnish his policy record in advance of next May’s presidential election. Instead he raised the stakes, addressing “the future of the European continent”. In his view, populists are taking advantage of the public’s fears. Citizens see the European Union (EU) as imposing too much discipline and too much solidarity at the same time, without delivering on its promises. Brexit isn’t just another crisis, but revealed the crisis at the heart of the EU through the people’s distrust. To address this situation, a new impulse is necessary.
But rather than a major vision, President Hollande subsequently advanced a few very concrete themes, all of which echo concerns the French have aired consistently over the last years: security on the one hand, and prosperity on the other.
Not only did he reiterate the need to strengthen security through external border control – a traditional French priority only reinforced after the refugee crisis and the most recent terrorist attacks - he also suggested to move on defence by building up Europe’s military capabilities, and consequently its defence industry, through a joint Defence and Security Fund.
On economic and social cohesion, the French leader stressed the importance of fighting tax and social dumping in the EU, echoing the Commission’s recent decision on Apple’s tax bill. He also insisted on investing in the future by doubling down on the Juncker plan on research, training, and digital and energy infrastructure.
Behind the stage, officials worry of excessive expectations towards Bratislava. The moment is not ripe for bold decisions. But they still insist that a sense of direction needs to emerge from the Summit and - more than that - a sense that this impulse will sooner rather than later trickle down into the day-to-day lives of EU citizens. On border control, for instance, the French insist on implementing the new border guard corps before the next crisis shows up.
This will be one of the difficulties at Bratislava for Paris. None of the issues in François Hollande’s speech are suited to quick fixes. He knows quite well, for instance, that his ideas on youth mobility across Europe need further work and consultation. The President, who confirmed France’s availability to initiate a “structured permanent cooperation” on defence capabilities with like-minded partners, also postponed this initiative to a later stage. Still, the French view is that the Summit’s success will lie precisely in its ability to initiate a sustained process involving both vision and action, so as to bring back voters’ confidence in the EU.
Another difficulty relates to the tension between the need for a multi-speed Europe and the fact that, in the wake of the Brexit referendum, the message from Bratislava has to be about unity. Reservations about further integration, and Germany’s insistence to calm Eastern and Central Europe’s concerns, make it impossible to press on now.
Paris played with the idea of a multi-speed Europe last spring, and still believes it will need to be put forward at some point. For instance, it remains persuaded of the need to strengthen the Eurozone. In his speech to the ambassadors President Hollande mentioned the need for social and tax harmonisation, especially between the Eurozone 19, as well as his proposal of an additional financial capacity for the Eurozone to fund its own projects. But there, again, Bratislava is not the right moment. These issues will rather have to be addressed at a later stage.
The last difficulty for Paris will be the different senses of urgency felt across the EU. François Hollande’s outreach effort over the summer wasn’t meant only to insist on his key priorities. It also advocated for a quicker pace of action, as a more responsive EU is also understood as key to regaining the people’s confidence. But this feeling isn’t shared by all, including not by Germany. France has known for some time that the context isn’t right for a review of institutions or a new ‘founding moment’ – and would likely have to make its views on these issues more precise anyway. But it is convinced that this shouldn’t prevent the EU from becoming quicker in responding to the public’s concerns.
In this context, France is far from assured that Bratislava will deliver on its aspirations. But it can count on a few elements to help. First, the State Of The Union address by President Juncker will be an opportunity for the Commission to put some concrete ideas on the table and generate some momentum. Paris will likely support Juncker not just because of his investment plan or some like-mindedness over the state of the EU, but also because now more than ever in the recent past, the EU needs more than just inter-governmentality.
Second, the close link maintained with Chancellor Merkel, in spite of her differences and her outreach efforts parallel to President Hollande’s, is crucial to fine tune the Summit’s outcome, even if the Chancellor’s desire to explore “alternatives to [Germany’s] unipolar position” and address “the level of political fragmentation in the EU” are not necessarily in France’s interest. The most recent joint contribution by MFAs Steinmeier and Ayrault, and now joint letter by MoDs von der Leyen and Le Drian, show that even on as difficult topics as foreign and security policy, this partnership still has the ambition to lead Europe.
Last, in spite of a tense and fierce political context in France, with the presidential election looming, the Bratislava Summit and the need to outline a clear plan for the future of Europe hasn’t been too much of a political punch bag so far, leaving some leeway to the French government to push for Hollande’s security and prosperity agenda.