[Overseas view]The French role in Europe

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[Overseas view]The French role in Europe

On the first of July, France will take over the presidency of the European Union for the next six months. It will act as Europe’s voice during the transitional period until the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, which will provide a new institutional framework to the EU.

When the treaty is implemented, the presidency of the European Union will no longer be dictated by the relatively short six-month rotation, which is quite problematic for a body of 27 members.

The new institutional setup will provide an EU president for a two and a half year term, as voted for by the member states. It will achieve more efficiency and more continuity for Europe.

So will this presidency of the EU be a success for President Nicolas Sarkozy? And what specifically are the criteria for success or failure? The first task of the French-led presidency will be to handle the ratification process of the Lisbon Treaty. After the Irish refusal, the treaty needs unanimous ratification. Sarkozy is credited for having pulled France out from the trap it had itself jumped into when it voted against ratifying the EU Constitution in 2005. But the French president has upset his European counterparts by giving them the feeling that he wanted to play solo.

France is often criticized for its arrogance. In this context, the French minister for European affairs, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, has tried his best to silence the critics. Since he entered the French government, he has actively engaged in deeper consultations with the other representatives of the member states, spending two days per week in Brussels, and visiting a European capital every week. As a former chief of staff for Jacques Delors’ cabinet when he was president of the EU Commission, Jouyet knows very well the subtleties of European technocrats and the institutional mechanisms of the EU.

France has always been seen at the forefront for the construction of a strong European Union, an institution believed to have the power to influence security and economic development. However, France is now wondering whether or not the union is still as powerful or as relevant as it used to be when it had fewer members. Indeed, France’s role and rank is obviously different in a 27-member state EU than it was when there were just six, nine and then 12 members. Gone are the days when it was sufficient to make a bilateral agreement with Germany in order to get legislation passed. France must reshape its European policy because the EU ship is now too large to be steered by a single skipper.

First, France wants to implement a common immigration policy. Europe currently needs and will continue to need more migrants due to its low birth rate and lack of workforce in many sectors. But a common immigration policy at a European level will be difficult as some governments are eager to prevent migrants from coming in. But the need for a shared immigration policy stems from the fact that European countries share borders through which people can move freely, but each European country has its own immigration policy which is not congruent with their neighbors, a situation that creates tensions within the union.

France also wants to play a very active role in climate change and energy, particularly nuclear energy. It is no coincidence that the two issues are linked. Climate change is of utmost importance in public opinion. It is one of the very few points for which President Sarkozy has distanced himself from George W. Bush. We must also take note that France is a leading country in nuclear energy.

With the price of oil skyrocketing, countries could turn toward nuclear energy. That would be a way for France to gain some economic ground. President Sarkozy has been portrayed as highly skilled in the arena of nuclear diplomacy. He has signed many trade agreements in the nuclear field. France is obviously betting on gaining a lion’s share in the future worldwide nuclear market. However, the French president’s strategy has been severely criticized in Europe because some countries, such as Germany and the Nordic bloc, are still opposed to nuclear energy.

The third priority for Paris will be the Common Agricultural Policy. The budget attributed to the CAP represents some 40 percent of the whole EU budget. For Paris, the food price crisis has proven even more fruitful for the movement to lower the CAP. Thanks to the agricultural policy, European consumers have been granted cheap access to agricultural products for years. Europe is now a leader in a market which seems to be on the rise worldwide. As a result the British now claim the increase in the price of agricultural goods is proof that the free market is sufficient to guarantee comfortable incomes for European farmers.

The last priority for the French presidency: revitalizing the European defense policy. Since de Gaulle, France has pushed for the EU to go it alone with its own security pillar. However these initiatives have mostly failed because the closest allies of the U.S. feared that it could challenge the validity of NATO and weaken trans-Atlantic links. By deciding to fully come back inside NATO-integrated structures, abandoned in 1966, France wants to cozy up to Washington and the pro-American Europeans. The deal is the following: France agrees to come back into NATO and in exchange, Washington gives a long-awaited green light to the EU defense pillar. French reintegration is expected to take place in April 2009 to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Atlantic alliance. It is a risky bet, considering nobody knows who will be in the White House at that time. There are two vastly different schools of thoughtson trans-Atlantic relations.

We wonder what the creation of a European security pillar will signal to Washington; Will the United States accept power sharing or only ask for burden sharing?

*The writer is the director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

by Pascal Boniface
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