Denis MacShane: ‘No one knows who leads the European left’

Former British minister for Europe, Denis MacShane

For British MP Denis MacShane, there is no point in praising the German economic model. He says the French obsession with the "Merkozy" couple can create errors of judgement.

Denis MacShane is the British MP for Rotherham and a former European affairs minister under Tony Blair. He spoke with Clémentine Forissier and Morgane Lapeyre of EURACTIV France. MacShane was visiting Paris to meet with some of French Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande's staff.

The text below is an English adaptation of the original interview, which was conducted in French. ??To read the interview in the original French, please click here.

Other than to talk about the crisis, Europe is largely absent from the French presidential elections. Does this surprise you?

Europe has never been a strong theme during election season. I remember the campaigns of Giscard, Mitterrand and even Chirac, Europe only became an issue for them once they were elected.

Nicolas Sarkozy has been particularly present on the European scene since 2008, with the French presidency of the EU. His style, which contrasts with that of his predecessors, did not go unnoticed…

He's a very surprising man. He comments freely on his European partners. During the last summit [30 January], he said during a press conference that the United Kingdom no longer had any industry. The statement is a little indecent.

Neither Mitterrand nor even De Gaulle would have allowed themselves to make such comments about a neighbouring country. All the more so because industry's share in our economy is actually slightly bigger than France's. Making this kind of statement can lead one to take bad decisions.

In the management of the crisis, has the exclusive Sarkozy-Merkel duo been counterproductive?

Paris and Berlin embody a classic conservative economic policy, but it is outdated today. I have nothing against the Franco-German couple, but this obsession only exists west of the Rhine. The term "Merkozy", used excessively in Paris, is completely unheard of in Berlin.

France has always used Germany as a point of reference for comparison. It is of course the biggest country in Europe, but I am not convinced that the German economic model is like "Superman". German economic performance has not always been good. During the 1990s the country had to face the costs of reunification.

To recapitalise the state, Gerhard Schröder knew how to sacrifice his political ambitions for the good of the nation. He imposed a freeze on salaries in industry for five years, which made him lose the 2005 elections. I have a hard time seeing Nicolas Sarkozy following Schröder's example.

He did certain things, like pension reform, which were necessary. But has not liberalised some very protected sectors such as, for example, medicines.

Would you say the Franco-German management of the crisis has made a rapprochement with the British more difficult?

The British are very pragmatic. Europe won over the English right in the 1960s and 1970s when it was a very dynamic region and its growth rate was twice that of the United Kingdom.

But, at the end of the Thatcher years, the tendency was reversed and Europe was no longer a model to be emulated. Euroscepticism then took off in the United Kingdom at the same time that growth in Europe declined.

David Cameron has no interest in a strong Europe and it's why he limits himself to defence policy when he talks about common ambitions. It is, however, important for him to show that he can be present in Europe because he is always between his eurosceptic voters and MPs, and his European partners, with whom he does not want to risk burning his bridges.

Nicolas Sarkozy sees Europe's future at multiple speeds. Is this inevitable?

In a period of crisis, the reflex is first to denounce proposals on the table, but concessions are then made. In 1985, Margaret Thatcher was very different from Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand. Some European countries, like Denmark and Ireland, were incidentally very independent. But the leaders were nonetheless able to adopt the Single Market Act.

Two, four, multiple speeds, that is not the question. It is obvious today that the eurozone is going towards more integration. The important thing is to go towards majority voting in all areas.

In addition, national MPs are completely excluded from the debates and the decision-making process at European level. In my opinion if there is one important reform that needs to be put in place, it is linking the European Parliament much more closely with national parliaments.

But MEPs have a tendency to believe that the EU Council represents the member states and that there is therefore no need to deal with national parliaments.

David Cameron has announced that he officially supports Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential elections. How would you assess their relationship?

Personally I believe that they are quite open with one another. They signed together an agreement on defence issues and consider their expedition in Libya to be a success. It was their Kosovo. In reality, since they have removed Qaddafi from power, the situation in Libya is just as deplorable.

Cameron has put quite a few of his eggs in Nicolas Sarkozy's basket by betting on his re-election. Perhaps he spoke too soon because François Hollande is better-placed to win the presidency.

But it seems to me especially to be a fairly dangerous bet, because the French president is not a very stable man: he can change his opinion from one day to the next.

François Hollande is visiting London this week. He has made the struggle against finance a key theme of his campaign. How are these statements perceived across the Channel?

More than Hollande's statements on finance, it has especially been France's position on the Tobin tax which has provoked reaction in the United Kingdom. It's incidentally quite curious that it's the right which has proposed it.

I have spoken a great deal with François Hollande. In England, he is mainly known for being someone "nice". Since his entering the campaign, he has shown a steely temperament and a fairly good team. And what is more he, unlike Jospin, he has no qualms about fully accepting his social-democratic ideology.

The former head of British diplomacy, John Kerry, said recently that his speech in Bourget was one of the most remarkable that he had heard in  recent years.

He is often criticised for not having a strong network in Europe, for having never been a minister…

It's absurd. Neither Cameron nor Blair had ever been ministers before being elected heads of government. If Hollande has no good networks in Europe, it's because the left is divided. Before, we had Schröder, Rasmussen, Gonzáles in Spain… Today no one knows who leads the parties of the left.

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