With French influence in Brussels at an all-time low, Paris is searching for ways to breathe life back into its EU delegation. EurActiv France reports.
As Paris prepares a cabinet reshuffle, in which it seems likely that Ségolène Royal will take over the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the question of France’s place in the European Union can no longer be ignored. How has France lost so much of its former influence in the European capital, and how can it halt the decline?
Successive EU enlargements in East Europe, a landslide victory for the National Front in the European elections, and certain questionable strategic decisions have all had a role to play, according to a report by two members of the French parliament.
The report, presented on Wednesday (3 February) by its co-authors, MPs Christophe Caresche (Socialists) and Pierre Lequiller (Republicans), advised the government to take urgent political action to halt the erosion of France’s influence in Brussels.
“We call for the question of French influence be treated as a real public policy,” said Caresche.
The secretary of state for European affairs
Among the solutions offered to improve France’s representation at the European level, the report proposed changes to the role of the secretary of state for European affairs.
In France, the position occupied by Harlem Désir, the former first secretary of the Socialist Party, has limited political clout. Attached to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the secretary of state represents France at the EU’s General Affairs Council, but rarely speaks for his country on specific subjects; a prerogative jealously guarded by the presidency, or the other ministries.
“The Secretary of State for European Affairs works under the umbrella of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, but the position would be stronger and more credible if it was answerable directly to the prime minister,” Caresche said.
But the authors’ proposals went further, calling for the secretary of state for European affairs to be assigned the role of a government spokesperson. “He could be the president’s spokesperson for European affairs. Then the head of state could have a spokesperson for domestic policy (Stéphane Le Foll) and for European policy,” Caresche said.
Rise of the National Front
The decline of French influence within the European Union has become something of a recurring theme since the 2014 European elections. But other circumstantial and structural factors are also to blame, according to the report.
Garesche and Lequiller stressed the fact that the election of 24 National Front MEPs drastically reduced the number of influential French politicians in Brussels and Strasbourg.
“The massive presence of the National Front weakens the French position in the European Parliament by depriving the French delegation of one third of its members,” Lequiller said.
The small number of influential positions held by French politicians is, according to the rapporteurs, a direct result of this weakness in the delegation.
Besides such political concerns, the report also criticised the poor strategic choices of the French MEPs, who appear to value prestige over influence.
“We have 11 MEPs in the Foreign Affairs committee, which leaves all the fewer for the other committees!” Lequiller complained.
While French members occupy certain influential positions, such as committee vice-presidencies, among the French delegation there are no political group presidents – except Marine Le Pen – and very few group coordinators; a pivotal role in the European Parliament.
Finally, the two French MPs pointed to the structural evolution of the EU as a factor in France’s fading influence. “Successive enlargements in the East have distanced France from the geographical and ideological centre of the European Union,” said Caresche.
“Today, the other capitals do not trust France’s economic and budgetary position,” said Lequiller, referring to Paris’ repeated failure to fulfil its budgetary commitments.
A failure thrown into sharp relief by Germany’s strong economic performance and budgetary austerity.
The European elections took place in May 2014 across all 28 member states.
The occasion was marked in France by the election of 24 members of the National Front, one of which then left the party to join the EFDD group. The extreme right party had only 3 MEPs in the previous legislature.
The changing face of French representation in Brussels has sharpened the decline of French influence in the European Parliament and the other institutions.