Michel Barnier, the EU's Internal Market Commissioner, has called on French President François Hollande to open a debate on what the country wants from the EU, warning that mainstream political parties risked losing the 2014 European elections if they failed to do so.
2013 will be a blank year for Europe because of German elections, an opportunity which "the French should use to talk about Europe," Barnier told a group of French journalists in Brussels on Wednesday (9 January).
Such a debate "will be conflictual," Barnier acknowledged as he presented his wishes to the press, "but not talking about it is worse," he said, adding that the next European elections in 2014 could see a rise of extreme parties.
Countries hit hardest by the financial and economic crisis have seen their governments toppled at each election, Barnier remarked, warning of a looming political crisis in 2014 unless mainstream French parties opened a debate about what they want from the EU.
"But nobody talks about it, as if we were shameful of Europe," Barnier said. "We hug the walls because it is a difficult debate."
French people have grown increasingly sceptical about European integration and rejected a proposed EU constitution in a 2005 referendum, amid fears of mass eastern European immigration, typified by the "Polish plumber" archetype.
Since that debacle, mainstream political parties have refrained from big discussions on the European Union. François Hollande, the Socialist French President, has so far focused his European policy on immediate measures to help restore economic growth.
At the last EU summit in December, the French President said confidence in the euro zone could now return thanks to measures adopted in the last six months, and delayed a new stage in European integration until after to the May 2014 European elections.
Fear of European debate
Barnier said this could be short-sighted in view of the 2014 European elections for the two mainstream political parties – the centre-right UMP and Socialist Party (PS).
"At the PS, and at the UMP likewise, I think there is this fear of reopening the debate on Europe. And yet, if they do not reopen it, they will lose. They will lose because the addition of Le Pen, Mélenchon and others will be stronger, that's what I think."
The French president François Hollande, he continued, "should open the debate one way or another, maybe by asking Mr. Juppé and Jospin to make a preparatory report and open the debate."
"I am sure of one thing," he added. "It is that Germany is going to ask us the question of a stage of integration" after the September 2013 elections. "And we should be ready to respond."
A French contribution to the European debate could include consensual ideas in France, like Eurobonds that would mutualise debt, industrial policy, or trade reciprocity, Barnier suggested. The social issues raised by European economic integration are also shared by most political parties in France, which are quick to denounce the European Commission's perceived ultra-liberal stance on the economy.
A proponent of political integration, Barnier has backed federalist ideas such as appointing a single president to lead both the European Commission and the Council representing the EU member states.
But he cautioned against launching big institutional reforms just now. "I raised these ideas for institutional reform, I'm not afraid of this debate," he said. "The concern I have is that we go back to institutional issues when there are so many social and economic concerns. So I would not make it a priority."
The French commissioner said he would present his own proposals in the coming months in a new "European social contract".
European leaders have opened a discussion about deepening economic integration as part of their longer term plans to solve the debt crisis in the euro area.
At a summit in December, EU leaders endorsed the idea of a "specific and time-bound roadmap" for deepening Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), to be agreed at their June 2013 meeting.
>> Read: December 2012 summit conclusions [pdf]
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said that the roadmap would cover four issues:
- The coordination of major economic reforms in the Member States, including through ex ante discussions.
- The social dimension of the EMU.
- The feasibility and modalities of mutually-agreed contracts for competitiveness and growth between governments and EU institutions.
- Solidarity mechanisms that can enhance the efforts made by the member countries that enter into such contractual arrangements.
- 27-28 June 2013: EU summit to discuss roadmap for further economic and political integration in the euro zone.
- September 2013: General elections in Germany
- May 2014: European elections
- Report: Towards a genuine Economic and Monetary Union (Dec. 2012)
- EU summit conclusions (14 Dec. 2012)
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