French ex-president: EU needs to regain credibility among citizens

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This article is part of our special report Jobs and Growth.

Former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing has called on EU leaders to put forward a vision for Europe to inspire citizens, boost confidence and develop a shared sense of belonging.

Europe’s crisis is not institutional, Giscard d’Estaing said in debate with top EU officials. He argued that the EU needed to embrace change and set itself a clear goal for the future to regain credibility among citizens.

“It is not true that Europeans don’t like Europe,” said the former president of France. “[Solving the EU’s crisis] is about proposing a project that is worth believing in, even for a sceptic public.”

“We have to be creative and look to what’s happening outside of Europe. The world changes and we’re missing chances to change accordingly,” Giscard d’Estaing said.

Giscard d'Estaing, a liberal, debated the future of Europe with former Commission President Jacques Delors, Council President Herman Van Rompuy and former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González at an event on Thursday (10 October) organised by the French political magazine Nouvel Observateur and other media.

When asked what went wrong in the EU, Giscard d’Estaing told the audience in Brussels: “People presume Europe doesn’t work. But, in fact, Europe works – it is just working its way through a crisis. We have to be clear on that point.”

The discourse on a failing European Union has become commonplace since the economic crisis broke out in 2009, but Giscard d’Estaing argues that it is not a ‘eurozone’ crisis: “It is not a crisis of the euro as a currency; the euro hardly dropped in the past years. We’re the second strongest currency in the world.”

Fire-fighting

Contrary to other panel members, Van Rompuy took up a pragmatist position. Europe has no need for idealistic projects, the Belgian argued: “Before reinventing Europe, we have to rescue it. The problems we are facing are not institutional. We can do plenty within [the confines of] the existing treaties.”

As Council president, Van Rompuy’s achievements depend on the willingness of member states but “we have passed the point where every step in European integration is a win-win for them all”, he said.

“Did we do enough? Well, we didn’t have a lot of other options,” he said, adding that member states too often forgot that “Europe also needs sacrifices” on national interests.

The rescue plans launched by European leaders over the past few years have spurred discontent and estranged European citizens, with a recent poll stating that up to 60% of Europeans favour alternative policies to austerity. The EU’s response to the crisis has not worked, analysts say.

“In the end, all we did was save some financial institutions,” González said. “The core issues that caused the crisis have not been tackled. Our economy is still heavily dependent on the financial markets.”

“The problem is that [European leaders] have tried to be architects and fire fighters at the same time,” the Spanish former prime minister said. González served as prime minister of Spain from 1982 to 1996 and has been credited with leading the integration of post-Franco Spain into the economic bloc.

In search of a mission

González and Giscard d’Estaing both stressed the need to redefine the role of the European Union. “There are two problems. One is that we didn’t change [the institutions] with the arrival of new member states. We used to have twelve or thirteen commissioners; now we’re at 28. That’s the first mistake,” Giscard d’Estaing said.

“A second one is that Europe has no purpose any more. Before, we had goals: establish peace, develop a foreign policy power, create a monetary union… Today, we are unable to say what the actual goal of the project is.”

González issued a similar call for clarity and focus. The so-called Lisbon Strategy, which aimed at creating a competitive and knowledge-driven European economy over the past decade, was far too vague, he said. “We identified more than twenty priorities. De facto that means there are no priorities.”

In 2007, González led a ‘reflection group’ at the request of the Commission to report on the long-term prospects of the EU project. “The goal we set out [in its 2010 report] was to become a powerful economic bloc based on innovation and productivity, with a strong social model,” he insisted.

It is time to dust off this project, he argued, but the reflection group's report did not get much follow-up in the years after its release in May 2010.

In the run-up to the EU elections in May 2014, political leaders are expected to come forward with their visions or plans for Europe.  

The panel debate held on Thursday (10 October) kicked of a three day conference, ‘Reinventing Europe’, at the Brussels museum of fine arts, Bozar, in which top speakers came from across the continent to discuss the EU’s woes.

Background

After the financial and sovereign debt crisis, state bailouts and budget cuts, the May 2014 European elections are expected to take the pulse of public confidence towards the European Union. For the first time, voters will also indirectly choose the next president of the European Commission, giving citizens a fresh chance to shape the future of Europe.

Beyond personalities, the economy will be at the centre stage of national political campaigns. Nearly every national election since the onset of the eurozone crisis in 2010 has been fought between the poles of austerity versus growth policies.

Timeline

  • 22-25 May 2014: European elections in all 28 member states
  • 1 November 2014: New European Commission takes office
  • Spring 2015: Federalists propose launch of Convention to reform EU treaties

Further Reading

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