Politely but firmly saying no to a federal European state

The new ruling coalition in Berlin would like to see a more centralized federal European state. But this change could be offset by the upcoming elections in France. If President Emmanuel Macron’s popularity continues to drop, a new French leader could step up and defend the sovereignty of European nations.

Cartoon of an EU bureaucrat European Union’s centralization
A more centralized Europe would rob the continent of the competitive advantages it derives from its diversity. © GIS

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s new coalition agreement clearly spells out that Europe should move toward a “federal European State,” even promoting a constitutional convention within the European Union.

This is a paradigm shift toward centralism in German policy. A more centralized Union has been on the French agenda for some time and is certainly the aim of President Emmanuel Macron. The centralist dream of a European state is becoming reality, putting at risk the economic and political benefits of the continent’s diversity. But could there be another paradigm shift in France after the upcoming elections – one in the opposite direction?

Fifth Republic

France’s Fifth Republic was founded by General Charles de Gaulle when he became president. A hero of the French fight for independence during World War II, he tackled the country’s socioeconomic problems and addressed the aftermath of the defeat in Indochina as well as the Algerian war.

De Gaulle ended fighting in Algeria and granted independence to the colony, a French stronghold in North Africa. The decision angered many in France, and protesters attempted to carry out a coup and assassinate the president.

Despite this, de Gaulle managed to strengthen the economy and boost technological development. A true European, he strongly advocated collaboration with Germany. But he saw Europe not as a federation, but as a “fatherland of fatherlands.” The objective was to create a strong Europe through an efficient internal market. With this vision, he became one of the founding fathers of European integration.

France will soon hold elections. Although increasingly unpopular, President Macron appears confident.

Another of his aims was to reduce European dependence on the United States. He believed this would best be accomplished not by antagonizing the American state, but by making Europe stronger.

His last initiative was to try to decentralize and regionalize France. But he failed to receive acceptance for the reforms and ultimately resigned as a result.

The following years saw presidents from both the conservative right wing and the socialist left. Eventually, a strong nationalist group evolved around the Le Pen family.

Economically, after de Gaulle France lagged Germany. At the European level,  Paris started to increasingly favor the centralist version, pushing for a federal European state. President Macron is a strong supporter of Brussels centralism and internal etatism. He is obviously interested in achieving a common budget and a “unionization” of sovereign debt. Up until recently, Germany strongly opposed this, along with other countries like Austria and the Netherlands. Lately, however, former Chancellor Angela Merkel changed the German position and paved the way for more centralization of budget and debt.

New contenders

France will soon hold elections. Although increasingly unpopular, President Macron, a centrist with a leftist background, appears confident. His sense of security probably derives from the structure of the French electoral system, which requires a presidential candidate to receive more than 50 percent of the vote to win. Since this threshold is seldom reached, elections are usually decided in a second round between the two strongest candidates.

Since the presidency of Jacques Chirac, candidates from the Le Pen family have been the second strongest in the first rounds but proved too radical to win the second rounds. This is how presidents came to power.

But the situation has changed. In the nationalist camp, Marine Le Pen is facing a serious challenge now that Eric Zemmour has entered the race. With their votes divided, the nationalists are therefore less likely to make it to the second round. The traditional center-right party, the Republicans, was founded by General de Gaulle. Unfortunately, while his successors may claim to be “Gaullist,” when it comes to European matters, they are very much centralists, and etatists when it comes to the economy.

The Republicans elected Valerie Pecresse as their candidate. In the latest poll, inasmuch as these numbers are reliable, she came out second after Mr. Macron, who received 27 percent of the votes. But the same poll also showed she has good chances of defeating President Macron in a second round.

Could France take the helm in decentralizing the European Union?

President Macron calls himself a “liberal.” However, he is not a liberal in the classic European definition but rather in the American sense. The former prioritizes individual freedom and responsibility, entrepreneurship, competition and a small state. Meanwhile, American liberals believe in a strong state, government interventions in the economy and high taxation.

Valerie Pecresse is the current regional president of the Paris region and has served as minister of the budget and minister of higher education under President Nicolas Sarkozy. She is a classical liberal, and intends to downsize the state, increase working hours and retirement age. And, in clear contrast to President Macron, she wants to regain France’s sovereignty in matters of legislation and immigration.

Ms. Pecresse wants to protect European cohesion and avoid further Brexits. But her agenda is not to strengthen Europe with an “ever closer” Union” but rather through decentralization. She believes close cooperation with the German government is key, despite differences. In this regard, she is a real Gaullist, in the best sense of the word, and a European true to the principles of the Union’s founders.

Ms. Pecresse recently made a strong statement on her European position in answer to the centralist agenda of the new German government. “I hear some of our German partners suggest that the European Union should evolve into a federal state. Politely, but firmly, I will say no,” she concluded.

Could France take the helm in decentralizing the European Union, bringing back more national and regional responsibility and reinstating the principle of subsidiarity?

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