France, Germany and the Constitution of Europe

The European Constitutional Convention that started its work on February 28, 2002 is a critical step in the evolution of the European Union. Having put off for decades the debate over just how integrated the member states of the EU should be and whether it was moving toward a “United States of Europe,” the Convention is being asked to draft a new constitution that would clarify just how the Union should work. Will it be a “federal” union under the leadership of the integrated, executive Commission in Brussels, or a less centralized union led by the Council and its members states? In the heady debates that will take place (under the presidency of former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing), the national positions of France and Germany will be among the most critical factors of all.

What Kind of Executive Branch?

In the debate over the reform of EU institutions, Germany has tended to call for a strengthening of the Commission (and, thus, indirectly, the European Parliament [EP]) by electing the Commission’s president out of the EP. Mainstream-thinking in France and Britain, on the other hand, favors promoting the Council as the European executive. The German position may now have evolved with the signing of a letter to Spain, the holder of the rotating EU Presidency, Gerhard Schröder and Tony Blair in Stockholm on February 24 at the time of the of “Progressive Governance” meeting of European leaders of the left. Schröder and Blair pledged an in-depth reform of the Council that would become the most important institution in the future EU political system. Still, for many Germans, the election of the Commission’s president (as opposed to his appointment in the present system) remains essential to the democratization of the EU. If the president of the Commission were elected, European parties would have to run EP-elections with candidates and present a political working-program for the ‘Commission-Executive.’ The European people would have the chance to either reject or support the European ‘Commission-Executive’ by vote—a milestone towards democracy in the Union.

France, the “F-word” (Federation) and the Republic

France understands that its political future and influence in the enlarged Europe lies in its strategic partnership with Germany. Yet France’s historical dilemma is that its partnership with Germany in a strong federal Europe is only obtainable at the price of an institutional reform of the Union that denies many of the traditions of its own political system. The acceptance of a federated Europe might be the price France has to pay to avoid Berlin becoming Europe’s capital. In the current French presidential election campaign, Citizens Movement leader Jean-Pierre Chevènement epitomizes the French desire to maintain the “Republic” in the presidential elections. Chevènement’s score in the election, and the French electorates decision—or not—to get rid of “cohabitation” between a president of one party and a government of another—will be key factors in France’s ability or willingness to accept far-reaching constitutional reform for Europe.

The Political Constitution and Budgetary Decisions

An overlooked aspect of the Constitutional Convention is that it will have to prepare a European Constitution without having a say over EU financial decisions. Yet the two issues are intimately related, and there is a “chicken and egg” quality to their relationship. It is not only the French concern about reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that makes France reluctant to accept the future institutional system before making budgetary decisions. Germany’s desire to clearly distinguish the competencies of the EU from those of the national or regional level creates the same dilemma. For the question of competencies is nothing other than the question of the budgetary constitution of the EU. The talk on competencies—a say over how to use structural funds, for example—conceals that it is a debate about the “right” to subsidize companies on a regional level or the “right” to shelter parts of regional economies from EU competition law. In other words, without fixing the goals and the extent of the EU-policies (CAP or structural policies), it will be difficult to fix the institutional set-up. No state will agree on a federal system with Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) in all policy domains not knowing whether its own budgetary interests will be taken into account. And representatives at the Convention of the German Bundesländer—which, in structural terms, are as much of a constraint on European integration as cohabitation in France—will not accept more competencies for the EU level without having some control over the management of EU expenditures.

Despite these links, financial issues will be in the hands not of the Constitutional Convention but of the (enlarged) EU Council in 2006, when the budgetary framework of the “Agenda 2000” is to be reconsidered. The Convention will have finished its work already in mid-2003. The European integration process might suffer from the fact that the processes are disconnected. Either way, France and Germany will matter more than others in the effort to achieve the reform of community policies in order to make a success of enlargement. Germany needs enlargement more than France and France does not want to pay for it more than Germany. The key for a reform of CAP lies in the Elysée. At least one key for a successful enlargement lies in reform of the CAP. Agreement between France and Germany is thus a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for progress toward European integration.

Tandem Out of Step?

Thanks to the so-called “Blaesheim Process”—Franco-German talks every six weeks at the highest level, instituted after the difficult Nice summit of January 2001—the bilateral relationship is now certainly in much better shape than last year. But it is still not nearly as good as it was in the “golden years” of French President François Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The relationship began to erode during the 1990s, when tectonic shifts after German reunification were glossed over with friendly rhetoric. One major problem arose at the Berlin EU Summit in March 1999, over the financial framework for the EU (the so-called “Agenda 2000”), where France blocked German proposals to nationally co-finance the CAP. Another important clash took place at the EU Summit in Nice in December 2000, which was supposed to prepare the institutional system of the EU for enlargement, but failed to do so. The meager results of both summits, and France’s nearly desperate attempts to maintain—for its own budgetary reasons—the “solidarity” of the CAP in Berlin, and—for major symbolic reasons—the parity of votes in the EU Council in Nice disclosed what had never before been admitted: there is no common Franco-German concept to cope with the enlargement of the EU. France fears not only being marginalized in institutional terms in the enlarged EU, but, in addition, having to pay—via the reform of the CAP—the lion?s share of enlargement, which would in any case mainly serve German political and strategic interests. French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine’s recent speculation about a “Big-Bang” scenario with twelve states (instead of only 10) joining the EU in 2004—seen by some as an attempt to torpedo the Commission’s plans for enlargement—shows the growing French nervousness.

A Chance for Britain?

French-German differences over institutional reform proposals, the French reluctance to take clear positions on Europe during its election campaign, and the absence of a concept of how to finance enlargement has created a vacuum. The declaratory common papers of the two governments and both parliaments on the eve of the EU-Summit in Laeken did not change that. Instead, the vacuum is surprisingly being filled by concrete and pragmatic British proposals for the reform of European institutions, especially the Council, that are partly being adopted by Germany. France might see further problems in this second Schröder-Blair letter, but there is a risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy on the French side: the more it stands aside in the European reform debate, the greater the risk that it will be marginalized in an enlarged Europe.

There are two main conditions for the success of Europe’s enlargement and Europe’s constitution. The first is an energetic Convention that transcends the ideological dispute on the “F” and “C” words and that comes up with a blueprint for an efficient and transparent political and institutional system for the EU. This is the ambition of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing who, as a Frenchman, might be able to reinvigorate France’s European policy. Second, EU member states must make substantial reforms of EU policies before enlargement happens in 2004/5. Some of the Commission’s recent ideas on phasing new member states into the CAP progressively suggest at least that creative thinking is being done.

Neither French nor German (nor other) politicians should be overly hesitant as the work of the Convention progresses. Opinion polls show increasing interest and a support for greater European integration. After the launch of the euro, the time might also be ripe to merge the symbolic act of a Constitution with significant steps forward in other areas of integration, including foreign and security policy. The results of the Convention and forthcoming Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) should also be put to a Europe-wide referendum, which would show that the EU is becoming more citizen-driven and less elitist. The desire for real democracy must be satisfied in France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe.