28 June 2016

The preliminary ballot to select the centre-right frontrunner for the 2017 French presidential election will not take place until late November. However, the battle lines are already being drawn – and the future of European integration, especially in the aftermath of the UK’s vote to leave the EU, is clearly among the key topics under discussion.

The four main hopefuls for nomination – Nicolas Sarkozy, Alain Juppé, François Fillon and Bruno Le Maire – have all begun to set out their vision for EU reform in recent articles or interviews. Below, I try to compare some of their flagship proposals. I will mostly let direct quotes speak for themselves.

Sarkozy: Yes to Treaty change, no to EU referendum

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave a wide-ranging interview to Le Monde in May, before the UK referendum. He said France should take the lead and propose changing the EU Treaties right after the French presidential election next year. In his own words,

The debate over Brexit is an opportunity to re-found Europe…On a number of their criticisms, the Brits are right. The peoples’ disengagement vis-à-vis Europe is a major concern for all [EU] countries…Brexit or not, we will need, under any scenario, to deeply re-found the European project. And that will go via a [new] Treaty that France must initiate from the summer of 2017.

But what should this new Treaty be about? Sarkozy addressed several key areas – starting, unsurprisingly, with the reform of the passport-free Schengen travel area. He said,

The priority will be to lay the foundations of a Schengen II, because Schengen I is dead. I propose creating a euro-Schengen, that is to say a government of Schengen comprised of the interior ministers of the [participating] member states, with a stable President, who would have authority over [the EU’s border agency] Frontex…Joining Schengen II will imply the prior adoption of a common migration policy, notably including the harmonisation of social benefits granted to asylum seekers in order to avoid social tourism.

The future of Eurozone integration is another big subject evoked by Sarkozy, who said,

France and Germany must ensure the leadership of the Eurozone. A real economic government is needed, notably with the creation of a Secretary General who would be a real Director of the European Treasury in order to favour the coordination of Eurozone member states’ economic policies. We also need the ESM [the Eurozone’s bailout fund]…to become a European Monetary Fund. Besides, I don’t understand that the IMF is always present in the Eurozone.

Finally, Sarkozy insisted on the need to repatriate certain EU powers, saying,

As regards the EU at 28, it deals with too many [policy] areas. It must focus on the functioning of the internal market, on ten or so priority policies (agriculture, energy, trade, etc.) – all the rest must be returned to the sovereignty of [member] states.

However, unlike his main competitors, Sarkozy is opposed to the idea of an EU referendum in France (he did not hold one on the Lisbon Treaty, which was signed and entered into force during his tenure as French President). He told Le Monde,

I do not believe that the referendum is the best way to answer such complex questions over the re-foundation of Europe.

Juppé: Cautioun over Treaty change, EU referendum is not for today

Former Prime Minister Alain Juppé is another strong candidate for nomination. He also spoke to Le Monde, but after the UK’s referendum. He is more cautious than Sarkozy – and his other main competitors (see below) – on EU Treaty change. He said,

A treaty is just a tool…Before putting a new [EU] Treaty in operation, France first needs to put on the table some concrete proposals to build Europe.

Juppé singled out five key goals to pursue to reform the EU,

First of all, we need to say stop to [EU] enlargement. Then we need to redefine the boundaries of competences, because the European institutions cannot continue to produce so many norms and laws. The subsidiarity principle must finally be applied by redefining the boundaries between the EU, which must take care of the essential, and the [member] states, which must regain control. Third idea: we need to relaunch the Eurozone with more tax and social convergence, but also through a big investment plan targeted at innovation and digital transition.

He goes on,

We will also need to renegotiate an agreement on borders – because Schengen is not working anymore – by asking our partners a question of confidence: who really wants to control borders and is ready to contribute to a European border guard? And finally…French defence will remain national and a European army is not for tomorrow, but we can mutualise our means and cooperate with five or six European countries in the defence sector.

Compared to Sarkozy, Juppé sounds more open to holding an EU referendum in France – although not in the immediate future. He argued,

It would be totally irresponsible to organise a referendum [on the EU] in France today. On the other hand, the peoples of Europe have the feeling that the European construction has been carried out without them. This feeling is part of the current rejection [of the EU]. A referendum will be needed, not just in France, but in all countries concerned, at a certain stage of the reconstruction of Europe.

Fillon: No to the Europe of technocrats, EU referendum only after new Treaty

Former Prime Minister François Fillon will also throw his hat into the ring, although he looks more like an outsider compared to Sarkozy and Juppé. In the aftermath of the UK’s referendum, Fillon penned an op-ed for Le Monde, listing a number of initiatives he would take to reform the EU if he were elected French President next year. Similar to Sarkozy and Juppé, he wants the EU to hand back certain powers to national capitals,

I do not want the Europe of technocrats anymore. I want a political Europe…I would go to every [European] capital to propose to our partners that we build a new Europe, more respectful of nations. That Europe should be refocused on some strategic priorities, all the rest must be returned to the competence of [member] states. Subsidiarity and variable geometry would prevail over the current uniformity.

On the issue of further Eurozone integration, Fillon writes,

I would propose to Eurozone members that we finally reach the political stage of the euro, with the organisation of a parliamentary representation, the appointment of a permanent Eurozone finance minister, and the undertaking of the process of tax harmonisation for Eurozone businesses.

Fillon is in favour of holding an EU referendum in France, but only after Treaty change. He explains,

This new Europe shaped by a new [EU] Treaty would be put to a referendum in France. Those who, right now, are calling for a referendum similar to the British one are playing Russian roulette with European civilisation. The referendum must help us to choose a future – not to settle the resentment of the past. The challenge is to re-found Europe – not to decide between the status quo or divorce.

Le Maire: We do need a new EU Treaty, but Sarkozy’s timetable is unrealistic

The other outsider in the race for centre-right presidential nomination is former Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire. We knew since early May that he was in favour of holding an EU referendum in France. He elaborates further in an interview with Le Figaro today,

It would be irresponsible to keep building Europe as we have been doing for thirty years – by ignoring the peoples…I have never proposed a ‘Frexit’, unlike [Front National leader] Marine Le Pen! I am calling for a re-foundation of the European project, based on a [new EU] Treaty that, at the end of the negotiation, will be put to the French people [in a referendum].

However, he believes that the timetable for Treaty change suggested by Sarkozy (see above) is “unrealistic”. Le Maire puts quite a bit of emphasis on the need to reform EU competition policy,

I lament that the EU has turned the principle of free and absolute competition into the alpha and the omega of its economic policy. The result is the weakening of our production tools and the destruction of our jobs…We also need to review the Posted Workers Directive to avoid social dumping. I want as well the respect of the principles of strict reciprocity and transparency in all [trade] negotiations.

Le Maire also provides some details as to how he believes the upcoming EU exit talks with the UK should be handled. He says,

We need not give in to future [British] demands to obtain free access to European capital markets – what is called the financial services ‘passport’. Britain has decided to leave the EU: it must now accept the consequences…Moving the Franco-British border from Calais to Dover is a good idea.

We might see a very different France in Europe as of next year

The French presidential election is still quite some time away, and crucial questions are unanswered at this stage. It remains to be seen, for instance, whether François Hollande will decide to stand for re-election. If that was indeed the case, opinion polls suggest France would then be highly likely to elect a centre-right President next year. All of the four potential candidates mentioned above would beat Marine Le Pen in the second round – where Hollande would most certainly not feature.

The quotes I have collected quite clearly show that France under a centre-right President could become a very different actor in Europe. It would seek the repatriation of a number of EU powers to national capitals and the reform of Schengen. It would be willing to change the EU Treaties – although Juppé is more cautious than the others on this issue. Most importantly, except for Sarkozy, it would potentially be prepared to hold a referendum on a new EU Treaty – after skipping the one on the Lisbon Treaty. In other words, we could be in for some interesting times ahead in French politics.