French sovereignty wars

3 Aug

A good article in yesterday’s Le Monde by former French foreign minister, Hubert Védrine. He points out that in the discussion around the ongoing Eurozone crisis, more federalism is viewed as a natural and common sensical step forward. Any resistance is disdainfully regarded as little more than anachronistic national atavism. That doesn’t mean federalism will happen, but it does mean that its critics appear as irrational and behind the times. Védrine takes issue with this given that on paper and in practice further moves away from national sovereignty are by no means so self-evident: deregulated financial markets were part of the cause of the present crisis and those stepping in to shore up the international economy are national governments disbursing money raised in taxes on national citizens.

In this debate, we are reminded of the name given to those who in 1982-1983 urged France’s François Mitterrand to give up on the European Monetary System’s fixed exchange rate and pursue a narrowly national solution to the economic crisis. They were dubbed ‘the Albanians’ – a sign that even then, in the early 80s, anything resembling a resolute defence of national sovereignty in economic affairs looked like the actions of a tinpot Maoist regime.

Védrine’s argument chimes with a wider debate in France around globalization. In another op-ed piece in Le Monde, Sciences Po professor Zaki Laïdi described the idea of “de-globalization”, floated by some leading figures of the French left (such as Arnaud Montebourg and Jean-Luc Mélenchon) as economically inefficient and politically worrying. A similar complaint had been made by World Trade Organization director, Pascal Lamy, for whom the idea was “reactionary”.

It is easy to dismiss an idea by calling it old-fashioned and out-dated. Védrine’s point still stands: isn’t it bizarre to call for more political union in Europe when there is so little support for the EU among citizens? Angela Merkel’s problem from the beginning of the Eurozone crisis has been to square her support for the EU bail-out packages with a predominantly skeptical German population. One of the reasons that Eurozone governments have proceeded so cautiously has been their desire to avoid introducing measures that would require modifications to existing treaties. That would mean national ratification by parliaments or peoples – something all Eurozone members want to avoid as they know the results won’t be pretty.

The French sovereignty wars reflect a deeper crisis in European economic governance. Conflict today plays out as much between disenchanted national populations and their respective political elites as between individual nation states. More federalism may be the preferred solution of markets and technocrats but it has little to offer those concerned about democracy.

5 Responses to “French sovereignty wars”

  1. bernard August 4, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

    Before even reading your post, a suggestion. The typeface you are using for this blog makes it very hard to read on internet. the character size is very small and the color is not black. As your blog is quite new, you might want to revisit that.

  2. bernard August 4, 2011 at 4:52 pm #

    Yes, indeed, Europe is not very popular among European citizens. I suspect that a major reason for this has to do with the fact that European commission members are not elected, they are chosen by heads of state. As a result of this they actually do not have the legitimacy and the authority that heads of state in federal states – the USA and Germany come to mind – have. And yet they make rules.

    Most extraordinary in this sense are the latest proposals by various members of the economic expert aristocracy to have some sort of fiscal Czar named in Europe with the power to constrain national budgets. While it is elementary that a single currency needs a federalisation of fiscal policy, it apparently has not crossed their exalted minds that there is such a thing as democratically elected representatives. One might wish to argue that the budget process is the single most important act of government, but surely one must be wrong.

    This, I believe is what the ever excellent Vedrines was driving at. He does not oppose federalism, he opposes undemocratic federalism and thinks that, unfortunately, the time for democratic federalism – let’s elect a president of europe and see what that does to, say, the president of france – has realistically not come yet.

    • The Current Moment August 5, 2011 at 7:39 am #

      Vedrine’s article was indeed a good one. And it is certainly true that some of the proposals coming out of both Brussels and national capitals regarding new powers to be granted to the EU are staggering. JC Trichet at the ECB has been an advocate of fiscal federalism, and as you say, others have spoken of the need for a fiscal Czar. In fact, this already is being put into place as part of the bail-out plans for Greece. National officials will share their desks and seats with Commission officials. The Dutch government has been very keen to push for a privatization program run by an international group, not by Athens. So to all extents and purposes, Greece is a ward of the EU. Member states have also floated the possibility of presenting their national budgets to the Commission before presenting them to their own parliaments. In a future post we will consider the solution proposed by Belgian economist, Paul de Grauwe, who proposes a federal model based on an empowered ECB – a solution that does not correspond to the nature of the crisis.

  3. brent August 4, 2011 at 6:04 pm #

    I’m not sure linking Mélenchon and Montebourg makes perfect sense. The latter surely uses the tag ‘démondialisation’ but does the former? My understanding is that Mélenchon–with strong ties to the Latin American left–is no isolationist but calls (like Besancenot before him) for a ‘different Europe’ AKA a ‘social’ Europe. I’d love to hear your opinion(s) as to whether such an alternative even makes any sense to talk about at this point.

    • The Current Moment August 5, 2011 at 7:45 am #

      Many thanks for that. Our understanding was that Mélenchon had also made some noises about démondialisation but your point about his internationalism is a very good one. We’ve an earlier post on this problems of the European social investment pact, proposed by social democrats and as close to a clear program for ‘social Europe’ as you can find. In truth, as the post argues, there is little social about it. More generally, the idea of ‘social Europe’ is not very convincing. First developed by Delors when he became president of the European Commission, it seems an unhappy marriage of chauvinism (Social Europe vs. pure capitalistic USA) and European social democracy’s own reconciliation with the market.

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