Hubert Védrine: ‘European elites showed disdain for the people’

For the Europhile elites, accepting that the people want to keep a certain identity, sovereignty and security is unthinkable, Hubert Védrine told EurActiv’s partner Ouest-France. To save the European idea, the EU should take a formal pause and reconnect with its citizens, he argues.

Hubert Védrine is a French Socialist Party politician. He is a former member of the French Council of State and was minister for foreign affairs from 1997 to 2002 under Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

Védrine recently published a book entitled Saving Europe.

You say public opinion in Europe is deeply divided. Since when has this been the case?

At the time of the Maastricht Treaty, just about all the important leaders backed the ‘yes’ vote. François Mitterrand was heavily involved and had a much greater influence than his successors. Yet in spite of this, the treaty only passed by 51%. This was when the European project began to stall, and the phenomenon continued with the 2005 referendum.

Gerhard Schröder (Germany’s former chancellor) told me that Germany would have voted ‘no’ if it had held a referendum. That is when I started thinking about the need to distinguish the European project, which is magnificent, from this kind of bureaucratisation that has taken over the EU.

Many people have tried to make this distinction…

I would describe what we have seen as a kind of headlong rush towards abusive regulation. Jean-Claude Juncker himself has denounced this, saying that Europe has been wrong to regulate so excessively. In fact, this phenomenon does not go back to the original European Community but has its roots in the single market and the Single European Act of 1986.

Have the member states often been to blame?

Yes, and many countries, especially France, have fed into this overproduction of standards. Then we created a real labyrinth between governments, the Commission, the Parliament and the Court of Justice. The people see these institutions as too far removed from them.

You are also not afraid to criticise the Europhiles…

That is right. There is another group that bears responsibility and it contains the elites and the media. They saw any opponents or doubters as backward imbeciles, old-fashioned nationalists and sovereigntists. The disdain for the people shown by the elites contributed to the distance we now see. Instead, they should have understood that the people’s hopes and concerns needed a response.

For example?

For the Europhile elites, accepting that the people want to keep a certain identity, sovereignty and security is unthinkable. I think they have been extremely condescending. This is why we saw the rise of protest voting and now see real electoral rebellions.

You wrote, “The idea of Europe coming undone is unbearable.”

I am not an anti-European. On the contrary. But I do not believe in classic federalism. What I like about Jacques Delors’ formula, when he supports a federation of nation states, is that it intelligently combines the two things.

But a strictly federal Europe would not work. No treaty with this aim would ever be ratified. Federalist campaigners are just talking hot air, it will never work.

So I aim to find a path down the middle. To strengthen the European idea that is so brilliant and to regain the support of the people that have been left behind.

You insist on the formal announcement of a pause…

When I talk about Europe taking a pause, it does not mean that everything should grind to a halt. It is a political message to the people, saying, ‘We have stopped, we are listening to you.’

It is to break down the idea that we are in a spiral beyond our control. This idea plays a role in the democratic melancholy that has descended on Europe. People have a voting card that they think is useless.

A pause followed by a conference…

Yes, not a classic European summit but a conference bringing together the governments that are ready to work on redefining how tomorrow’s Europe should work. It is a pathway that should be offered up.

Should this decision just be made between governments?

If you ask the Commission, the Parliament and the Court of Justice, they will say the system works fine the way it is.

But a Europe that is able to respond to the big challenges is already on the table…

It all depends on the discourse we adopt. If I tell you that there is strength in unity, that we are stronger against the Russians, the Chinese and the Americans, this is obvious. It is something everyone understands. When we talk like that, there are no Eurosceptics or anti-Europeans.

Projects like Airbus…

Exactly. There is strength in unity.

And another definition?

Europe is presented as something to which we will inevitability hand over control because our role is over, because as countries we are supposedly to small, weighed down by our past, unable to manage any more, tired, demoralised, etc… So Europe will continue in our place.

This is roughly what the elites have been saying for the last 20 years. But that is not what the people want. When they hear this, they drop everything.

But today, people are calling for sovereignty.

Because we were wrong to talk about national egotism. You would never accuse the mayor of Rennes of being egotistical for not looking after the interests of Strasbourg.

National interests exist, they are not incompatible and we have a negotiation system to reach compromises, but we should not lecture countries every day about national egotism.

Do people fear this could set off a downward spiral of nationalism?

No, this change is needed to save the core of the European idea.

Is the choice of language important here?

There is always vital linguistic work to be done. Take sovereignty. Of course, it can take many forms, some of which are completely stupid, but sovereignty is an extraordinary conquest. People taking charge of their own destiny is a great thing.

Can Putin and Trump bring back meaning to Europe?

Waiting and worrying about a hypothetical agreement between them is not the right thing to do. Europeans, starting with the French, should begin by defining what is important for them. We will be in a better position to discuss these issues after 20 January.