“Anti-Commission sentiment seems to have grown in France,” writes Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform (CER), in a January paper.
Grant bases his assertion on “an annual gathering of politicians, journalists and business leaders from Britain and France” in Versailles, which concluded that the main reasons many French have grown hostile to the Commission are its “alleged weakness and ‘ultra-liberal’ economic philosophy”.
The CER director believes this argument is largely correct, because the top Commission jobs “are or have been held by liberals”. As a result, Paris has found itself in conflict with Brussels “on a broad range of policy issues, ranging from state aid to the liberalisation of energy markets,” Grant observes.
“The French are also right that the EU executive is weaker than it was in the good old days of Jacques Delors,” he adds.
Indeed, Grant argues that the Commission was “slow off the mark to respond to the beginnings of the financial crisis,” while its president, José Manuel Barroso, is “sometimes reluctant to get into fights with big countries”.
Nevertheless, the author maintains that the French risk contradicting themselves when they accuse the Commission of being weak. “A mightier Commission that […] pushes through radical reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) might not be to Paris’s [liking],” he warns.
Grant believes that another reason why the French have turned against the EU executive is “wounded national pride”. “French used to dominate the institution” and was still the dominant language there, the author recalls. In the current Commission, however, “France did not get one of the top jobs,” he counters.
“The more the French believe they have lost control of EU institutions, the less they like them,” Grant asserts. Paradoxically, many people in Britain, including some Conservative politicians, “still assume that the Commission is committed to tighter regulation and interventionist or left-of-centre economic policies,” the director adds.
As a result, half a dozen senior Tories listening to the Versailles debate said “very little” when the French attacked the Commission. Grant says this is not surprising, because they would be “uncomfortable either supporting French criticism of economic liberalism, or defending the powers of the Commission”.
The CER director hopes that the UK Conservatives took French criticism of the Commission on board and realised that “the Commission is, on many policy issues, a potential ally for the British”.